Keystone Pipeline: Faithful Disobedience

Recently, as some of you know, I was arrested along with 1,250 others in a non-violent civil disobedience action in front of the White House. The general purpose of the so-called Tar Sands Action was to remind President Obama of his campaign pledge to make this generation “the first to free itself from the tyranny of oil”—all his words.

Specifically, our purpose was to persuade the President to deny a permit to a company called TransCanada to build a $7 billion 1,700 mile pipeline, known as the Keystone XL. If completed, the pipeline would transport 1,000,000 barrels of crude oil each day from the tars sands oil fields in Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas.

If the vast reserves of tar sands oil in Alberta are converted into atmospheric gases, James Hansen, the top NASA scientist and one of the organizers and participants of the Tar Sands Action, says it will be “game over” for climate change.

In addition to James Hansen, internationally respected experts on climate change such as Bill McKibben and Gus Speth participated in the action. Gus Speth coincidentally was a friend of mine and Al Sharp’s in college, and we are hoping to persuade him to come to Chicago and speak at a PCG event next year.

I had never been arrested before this action, nor had most of the other participants. For someone like myself who had practiced law for almost 40 years, engaging in civil disobedience was a big step. Although cuffed and stuffed into a sweltering paddy wagon, we had an easy time compared to the protesters on the first day. They all spent two nights in jail on a cement floor before being released. After the first day for some reason, all subsequent arrestees were merely booked, fined $100, and released.

I don’t think the protesters, a diverse group ranging in age from 18 to 85, had any illusions that their actions were particularly heroic. The point of getting arrested in what turned out to be the largest civil disobedience action that has focused on a climate change issue, was to get the attention of the media and the President, and to educate the public.

Since the proposed pipeline would cross an international boundary, it must be signed off by the President. Congress is not involved. During the two-week Tar Sands Action, the New York Times wrote a strong editorial urging the President not to approve the pipeline. NPR, MSNBC and PBS ran sympathetic coverage of the action. Many people, including perhaps some in this room, for the first time became informed about the Keystone XL pipeline controversy and why respected scientists think it’s a terrible idea.

On the other hand, while people were being arrested in front of the White House, the State Department issued a report concluding that the Keystone XL pipeline presented no serious environmental dangers; and the Chicago Tribune last week wrote an editorial supporting the pipeline and dismissing the arguments of “the anti-Keystone crowd.” The President says he will decide whether to approve the pipeline by the end of the year.

At this point, you are no doubt asking, what does all this have to do with faith and our faith-based organization?

Let me try to answer that question by invoking words from three authoritative sources. These sources, I believe, explain why each of us and why PCG as a faith-based organization have a moral obligation to try to save our precious and fragile blue marble of a planet from human-caused ruination.

The first quotation is by Aldo Leopold, the author of Sand County Almanac who coined for the first time in the 1930’s the term “land ethic.” He wrote, “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”

The second is by Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who ten years ago wrote,”The cause of violence is not ignorance. It is self-interest. Only reverence can restrain violence—reverence for human life and the environment.”

And finally, I quote from Genesis 9, perhaps the source of Leopold’s love for the land and Coffin’s reverence for the environment. You will recall that after God promises Noah that She will never again destroy the earth with a flood, God lays down a new covenant not just between God and Noah but between God and Her entire creation. God says to Noah, “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on Earth.” And then in the next verses God repeats almost verbatim the terms of this covenant no less than four times.

Is there any place in the Bible where the same phrase is repeated so many times in the same chapter? God must have really meant it. So why aren’t we listening?

Wally Winter

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