Posted by greendistrict
Last week, while reporting about environmentalism inside the Occupy Wall Street movement, I had an interesting conversation with Indiana University professor Fabio Rojas about the “trigger” effect. It’s a theory about the momentum that tends to build once protests reach a critical mass of supporters. The movement’s own success sets up a sort of positive feedback loop that “triggers” or “signals to” other – perhaps more cautious or moderate – people that it’s O.K. to express their own frustrations and even take to the streets.
I wonder if that’s not at least part of what helped bring out so many people to yesterday’s protest against the proposed Keystone pipeline. Busloads of folks from around the country turned up to encircle the White House. There were more than enough to make it around the presidential compound. Chief organizer Bill McKibben sent out an email to supporters last night saying 12,000 people participated in what organizers sometimes jokingly referred to as a big “hug” meant give President Obama the support he needs to scuttle the deal. Of course, White House “headlock,”also seemed an apt metaphor given the number of people waving signs expressing their disappointment with the president.
The pipeline would cut southward across the country transporting tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. Supporters have essentially cast the battle as another jobs v. environment fight, though the Washington Post had a story Saturday exposing some pretty fuzzy math in Keystone’s assertions that 20,000 jobs would result. Critics oppose the pipeline for a number of local and global reasons. They say building it would lock the country into decades of continued fossil fuel dominance and destroy any chance at reigning in global warming before its too late, while oil spills from the pipeline could contaminate ecologically sensitive areas, chiefly the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking and crop irrigation across several Midwestern states.
Riding around on my bike amid the smiling, chanting, occasionally singing and dancing crowd, the collective mood was joyous. This is what momentum-building apparently looks like compared to the general feeling emanating from the precursor: Last summer’s two weeks of civil disobedience at the same spot. Those rolling protests raised the profile of the pipeline fight and upped the pressure on the Obama Administration, but turnout was a disappointment. After initially trumpetting the news that more than 2,000 people had pledged to come to Washington and get arrested in front of the White House, organizers were left backtracking. In the end, more than 1,200 people were arrested.
About two weeks after the last tar sands protester made bail in Washington, however, Occupy Wall Street began. It’s conceivable that the tar sands protests acted as a “trigger” for the Occupy movement, though the anti-Wall Street activists have said their main inspirations are the Arab Spring and protests in Madrid.
Now, with thousands of people hunkered down in public squares and plazas around the globe, perhaps it seemed more reasonable than radical to take to the streets to defeat the pipeline that McKibben has referred to as “game over” for the environment. The trigger effect as more of a boomerang?
We may soon find out what it means for the pipeline decision but what about the prospects of triggering a wider climate justice movement? On that question, one thing bodes well for the protesters: Most in yesterday’s crowd are environmentalists from the get-go. True, some, particularly the contingent from Nebraska, may be acting primarily to protect their drinking water. And, there was definitely crossover from Occupy DC and other encampments around the country that are more concerned with the state of the economy, corporate greed and growing income inequality. Still, the vast majority of people, like the organizers themselves, were demanding action on climate change as much as protesting an oil pipeline. Shaping them into a formidable climate movement seems more doable than trying to redirect the anti-corporate sentiments of the Occupy movement into the related but less immediate issue of climate justice.