1016 counties in 26 states were declared a natural disaster last Thursday by the US Department of Agriculture. Parts of the Midwest have seen the driest conditions since 1988, but what distinguishes this drought is its geographic expanse: over one half the entire country, mostly in the southern states. Of the areas I have driven through on this trip, only Indiana and Illinois are in the declared area. Nebraska is not. The wheat crop here is mostly in, the corn looks pretty good, especially where irrigated, but the hay looks like amber waves of grain. But its not grain; its grass, and supposed to green. Crossing the Platte River two days ago I noticed it was completely dry. The state has banned any further irrigation from surface waters and there are no reports of significant rainfall in the forecast.
A recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ties extreme weather events such as prolonged heat waves and drought to the broader implications of climate change. The past 12 months have been the warmest on record in the US since the National Climatic Data Center began recording temperatures in 1895.[i] I will be driving into some of the states most affected by the drought later this week and next week.
I have mentioned several times in this book that I belong to a small, informal group in Louisville that participates, and often initiates, climate-related actions on both the local, national, and even global level. We have no dues, no membership list, no staff, no budget, and no regular meetings or programs. We just do things as they come up. We don’t even have a name, or at least we did not at first. We called ourselves the Louisville Earth Affinity Group (LEAG) for a while, but ended up with 350 Louisville, as many of our actions coordinate closely with the distinctly global organization, 350.org. In 2009 we went to DC to shut down the coal-fired Capitol Power Plant and later that year, as part of a global event, organized a large “350” human formation on the Great Lawn in downtown Louisville. On October 10, 2010, we put together a 10-10-10 renewable energy workday that included a solar installation that I directed, and in 2011 we organized another think-global-act-local 350 event, “Moving Planet.” This last May we did a 350 “Connect the Dots” event at the Kentucky Derby. We also go to hearings on Mountain Top Removal and coal ash pollution. The informal approach in our group avoids the burden of keeping the organization itself going, and allows us to enjoy each other while we are making a difference in the world. We like being together. Sometimes we just party. Being together and knowing each other well serves an important purpose in building solidarity when we do things. Last August, when we to DC for the White House sit-in, we gave each other emotional support as we stepped into the great unknown of bodily arrest. We are teachers, musicians, dentists, carpenters, nutritionists, solar installers, and nurses. Some of us are old enough to be retired. We are not hard-core politicos. Individually, we belong to the Sierra Club, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the National Audubon Society, Move-On, and the Kentucky Solar Energy Society. We are ordinary people who sense the Earth slipping away beneath our feet and who feel compelled to take action. We have hope.
There are lots of ways to organize, but I think this is an especially good model for environmental action in the coming years. It is nearly identical to what a group in Lincoln, Nebraska is doing. I came to their meeting last Saturday. They have no official name, and usually refer to themselves as “the coalition,” “the group,” or “350.” A dozen or so people showed up at Mary Pipher’s house with snacks, wine bottles, and covered dishes. After a half hour of small talk, Adam Hintz reported on his outreach film presentations in small towns around Lincoln, Aubrey Streit-Krug told of her work helping with Mary’s writing, Ken Winston spoke of the latest on the legislative front, I reported on my experiences in the Dakotas, and Mary read the introduction from her new book, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, due to come out over the winter, just before this one. (If you’ve just bought this book, go back and buy hers, too.) Her book is about the dynamics of this small group and the larger coalition that includes Bold Nebraska, the Sierra Club, the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Audubon Nebraska, Nebraska Farmers Union, Nebraskans for Peace, and University environmental groups. It chronicles their struggles with the Keystone XL pipeline. Mary has written several other important books, including the best seller: Reviving Ophelia.
A key phrase I found in Mary’s manuscript (She let me have a peek) is “…relationships always trump agenda.” She goes on to say “In fact, what I came to realize from my work with the coalition is that in individuals, families, communities, cultures, and even on earth itself, nothing good and beautiful lasts unless it is grounded in loving, interconnected relationships.” That sums up the group, and Mary. She lives as she says. I spoke with her at length after the meeting.
“The politics in this country are dead. If we wait for politicians or international bodies or corporations to make changes, it will never happen. The world will be gone. The only way a democracy exists is when you create it everyday. There’s no way going to a voting booth gives people democracy. What gives people democracy is participating in a very engaged way in the decisions of the day. Democracy isn’t just voting; it’s making decisions locally about resources, about land and water.” When I asked her how the legislature could be so overwhelmingly in favor of the pipeline with so much local and national opposition to it she answered “TransCanada gave our legislators over $800,000, over $600,000 of it in the form of entertainment. They were giving each legislator $42,000 in “entertainment!” What does that mean? What are they doing with all that money? The people who actually have pure spirits and the common good in mind are almost never elected, and if they are, they don’t last long.”
The members of the group decided never to have a meeting where anybody left without something to do. “You deal with a lot of information – upsetting information – it’s very depressing if you have no way to act. I’m a worrier, but if I act, I let it go. I can go on being happy. We have all felt impotence, despair, sorry, rage, confusion. If each of us feels those emotions individually, we’re whipped. But when we come together and realize we are all feeling this, there is an immediate catalytic energy, an immediate power. If someone has and idea, there are other people who want to hear it. If you think you have power; you have power, because you start acting like you have power. It’s so simple to empower people; all you do is say ‘I think your idea is great, why don’t you go for it.’ It’s like giving someone who’s thirsty a glass of water.”
Mary is always helping people through the heartache of witnessing the ecological destruction of mother Earth, and soothing her own spirit in the process. And she is a good judge of character. “We all know each other pretty well by now. We know strengths and weaknesses and who would do what. When we go to speak, my venue is the university, or the Unitarian Church. If it’s speaking to ranchers, we want Randy Thompson to go. He looks like John Wayne – he can really talk to those people. One thing everybody knows about me it I always think a lot more people are going to show up at events than actually do. I’ll think, “This is such a great thing we have planned; 500 people are going to show up!” and only 50 do.”
“Churchill said something like ‘Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of optimism.’ That’s us. No matter what happens we just keep working, we keep showing up. That’s the most important thing: just keep working! The opposition never goes away, but they never wear us down. What keeps us from being worn down is having a really strong social network, a lot of validating each other. I have a vehicle here to hold my own anguish; something bigger than me. If all the pain I felt about the world stayed in me, it would be too much. This has been a way for me to put that pain into the care of a loving group of people. This has been a transcendent experience. The people who are most depressed are the people who know the most about the situation and don’t do anything. Others are in denial. But what makes me a happy person is feeling I have a sense of agency and control. This group is one way I can do that.
Then I asked Mary what was likely to happen when the construction begins. “The place to take a stand is in your home, you environment, in your land: It’s in Nigeria, its in Kentucky, it’s in Pennsylvania, It’s everywhere. We feel part of people everywhere. We in Nebraska are at the hub of the universe; but so is everyone else! If this pipeline goes through, I think there will be an enormous amount of organized civil disobedience all the way from Alberta to Texas. And I think our group will be the organizers of that in our state. In most causes, you get the usual suspects to show up, but this one is going to be everyone. Not everyone is going to lie down in front of a digger, but we’re going to have walks across the state, demonstrations, and dramatic events. We don’t know now what we’re going to do. It doesn’t make sense to plan too far in advance. You’re much better off having a tight team that works well together. Whenever something happens they can come together quickly. I would certainly be willing to be arrested for this. I think thousands of people would be willing.”
“Well, maybe hundreds.”
I caught up later with several others in the group. Aubrey Streit-Krug is in her late twenties and a graduate student in Great Plains culture. She is currently learning a Siouan dialect that very few people are still able to speak. She heard about the group through helping Mary with the Green Boat manuscript.
“I haven’t been part of an organized group like this before. It’s exciting to meet people who share similar interests with me. I grew up in north central Kansas where my parents were dry land farmers (without irrigation). We grow wheat, not corn. Maybe a little for silage, but it’s not a commodity crop for us.”
“Having just driven through Indiana, Illinois, the Dakotas, and eastern Nebraska,” I noted, “I saw full sections, full square-mile fields of corn. I don’t think we need any more corn.”
“I’m actually quite interested in corn, as a crop for indigenous people, and I’m interested in the different varieties they grew.”
When I asked her about how she likes the dynamics within the group she was upbeat. “What I like about the coalition is it’s informal nature – it’s social, it’s organic. They’re willing to shift interest and involvement depending on who’s in the group, depending on what’s exciting, what abilities they bring, and what they’re willing to do. It’s fun, and a lot less intimidating than joining a formal organization. I can miss a meeting and that’s OK. Mary invited me the first time – when somebody you already know invites you to come, that’s a little different. I would have a hard time going if I didn’t know anyone. There’s spontaneity; you don’t feel like there’s a to-do list. And it’s inter-generational. I find that very rewarding. Whenever you can get people in their twenties involved with really experienced people, that can be powerful.”
“We didn’t have that when we were in our twenties.” I said. “The older generation couldn’t understand us. “What did we do wrong? You come from good families, we gave you everything you could want, why are you turning it down?’ We would have benefited from more intergenerational contact.”
When I asked her what motivated her interest in the pipeline issue she said, “I feel a strong sense of responsibility and commitment to the Great Plains region. I don’t mean that in the abstract. I have places and people I know and love that drive my academic work and my teaching. I want to learn and be useful, and taking action keeps you going.”
Ken Winston is the group exert on the state legislature. By profession, he’s a policy advocate for the Nebraska Sierra Club and spends a long of time at the capitol building. His story is important because it was Nebraska that alerted the nation to the perils of the Keystone pipeline, and people like Ken who alerted Nebraska.
“It goes back to the Gulf oil spill in April, 2010. Nobody was paying much attention to the XL here, but all of a sudden people started thinking, ‘There’s oil in that pipeline, and it could spill out.’ Senator Ken Haar, a real hero for us, asked me what questions to ask TransCanada in their application to the legislature. Then, later on that year there were oil spills in Michigan and the Yellowstone River in Montana. That got people thinking.”
“Jim Pipher (Mary’s husband) had written a piece about the pipeline in the paper, and I had heard that Mary was interested in the issue, so I joined this group. We decided to have a citizens hearing on May 12, 2011 at the state capitol. Mary and Randy Thompson spoke. About 100 people showed up. That same day the legislature passed a bill requiring complete reclamation of the pipeline right-of-way. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was a small victory. Then Senator Haar got 21 state senators to sign a letter to Secretary of State Clinton saying they did not want the pipeline running through the Sand Hills. In May there was the leak in the Keystone 1 in North Dakota (the one at the pumping stattion near Bob Bonderant’s house), so things were happening. Haar called me up and asked if I liked the idea of a special session of the legislature for the purpose of moving the route out of the Sand Hills. The Sand Hills is something very valuable and very vulnerable. It’s huge: the largest fresh water aquifer in the northern hemisphere, all fresh, clean water, I’ve been told it has as much water as Lake Erie, and it’s very close to the surface. It’s very important to Nebraskans, but nobody thought we would ever really get a special session. So we wrote letters to the editor, held art exhibits and rock concerts. Bold Nebraska organized a “Shine the light on (Governor) Heineman” event at the governors mansion. There were around 700 people with flashlights shining on the mansion, urging him to call the special session. The Apple Pie brigade, several grandmotherly ladies in our group, brought cookies to the governor every week with a little message about calling the special session.”
In March a dozen Nebraskans went to DC and spoke to the EPA and the state Department. “We asked to have a supplemental environmental impact statement, which they gave us! This would require hearings in September. The demonstrations at the White House happened in August before the hearings, and brought a lot of national attention to the issue. Nebraskans were arrested there, (including Nancy Packard, who was at the meeting at Mary’s house.) The Dalai Lama and several Nobel laureates wrote letters opposing the pipeline. On the last day of August – I have never have quite understood this – Gov Heineman wrote a letter to President Obama opposing the pipeline because of its route through the Sand Hills. I think he had some big donors who were landowners along the pipeline. We still didn’t think we would get a special session, but the State Department hearings in Lincoln and Stewart Nebraska were huge. 1200 people were at the one here in Lincoln. My daughter spoke there. I wrote in my blog that day ‘The last week has made me more proud than ever to be a Nebraskan.’”
“So, momentum was building, and there was all this focus on what’s happening with the pipeline, and a barrage of messages were saying we needed the special session. We still didn’t think it would happen, but the Governor called it suddenly at a press conference in October. That was a victory for us.”
“The Special Session started Nov 1. There’s a convergence of national and local events. Right as bills were being introduced the “Hands Around the White House” event took place in Washington. It was crazy, but I went to DC – right in the middle of the Special Session – but I had to go. It was too important. I came back to Nebraska and hearings started the next day. On our local television station we heard Obama say “We can’t sacrifice our water for a few jobs,” which was exactly our message. It was exciting to hear my words come out of Barrack Obama’s mouth! Then the State Department announced it would delay its decision for a year in order to evaluate the Sand Hills route!”
“The special session hearings were overwhelmingly in favor of moving the pipeline out of the Sand Hills, but TransCanada was not giving an inch. During the debate one of the leading senators asks me to come to his office, wanting to make a deal. I thought he was going to chew me out for something I had said. But they wanted to make a deal. All the pipeline regulations we had come up with would not apply to the Keystone XL, but they would take the pipeline out of the Sand Hills. So we thought, all right, we’ll take the deal. The downside is there was nothing official defining what constitutes the Sand Hills.”
“Then, during the regular session of the legislature this last January, they came up with disappointing bill known as LB1161, which basically stated that the governor would approve the pipeline, there would be an environmental quality review, and TransCanada would have the right to use eminent domain. But this would apply only to TransCanada. It passed 44 votes to 5. This undid much of what we had accomplished in the special session. We’re claiming now that it’s unconstitutional because it is “special legislation” that applies only to one legal entity.”
“So, overall, we won round one of the Keystone XL battle, but they’re coming back at us.“
When I asked Ken what was likely too happen if and when the pipeline is approved, he said, “Maybe we will get to a point where there is civil disobedience or worse, but right now I don’t want to go there, I want to think in terms of how we stop it through the legal process. It’s like Kung Fu: we take the opponent’s mass and we allow them to damage themselves. They’re very prone to overreact – to using sledgehammers to kill flies. So I thing we have to exhaust all our legal procedures. I’m hoping we get to the point where mining the tar sands is as unacceptable as apartheid in South Africa.
July 16, 2012
A12 Adam Hintz, KZUM(.org) radio, Lincoln “Earth to Lincoln” program, Meadowlark Café.
B01 Aubrey Streit-Krug
B02,03 Ken Winston, policy advocate, Nebraska Sierra Club
Governor Hineman writes letter to Obama opposing pipeline, Aug 31, 2011
State Department hearings Nov 2011
Special Session nov 2011
LB1161 Jan 19, 2012.
[i] “USDA Declares ‘Natural Disaster’ in 26 States as Drought Devastates,”Common Dreams,” July 13, 2012.