“NO on KXL”: Does This Change Anything?

Jon Quitslund

In the days since President Obama announced that he was, at long last, nixing the KXL pipeline, stories about the decision have had prominent places in the news cycle, and my email inbox has been crowded with messages from environmental organizations and political players celebrating, saying “We did it!” – and usually asking for a “chip in” contribution, so the good fight can be carried forward.

I haven’t heard much from the other side, but I’m sure the partisans of Big Oil and business as usual are only biding their time.  And they do have other issues to deal with, other fronts on which to mount massive resistance.

One of the themes in news reporting and commentary has annoyed me.  I’ll call it the “So What?” reaction.  It’s being said that both sides in the argument over the KXL pipeline indulged in exaggerations, and the final victory (or the defeat, if you will) is “largely symbolic” – and maybe not so final anyway.

Does exaggeration on both sides of the argument mean that both sides were wrong, so now it’s time to forget about the whole thing?

Show me a victory that isn’t largely symbolic, and I’ll tell you that either it doesn’t amount to much, or that we’re likely to regret it.  When one side in a conflict is devastated (the South in the American Civil War, for instance), seeds are sown for a longer and deeper sort of war.  The fundamental differences become harder to resolve.

There’s urgency surrounding a host of tough choices and political decisions that pertain to climate change, and they have practical, not-so-symbolic implications.  I trust that the talks in Paris will lead, though maybe not soon enough, to decisions that can’t be dismissed as “largely symbolic.”  I’m also confident that, for the time being at least, the multinational energy corporations will remain powerful.

But beyond the need for decisions by world leaders, affecting the lives of millions around the globe, there’s a need for profound cultural changes, affecting the distribution of power and resources.

How do cultures change?  Well, it’s complicated, and not only on the grand scale of nations, but within communities as small as ours.  We like to think that decades are distinctive and tipping points have a forever-after significance, but most real change is gradual, an accumulation of trends and alliances.  In that gradual process, symbols are essential to the definition of goals and the organizing of consensus.

Our time is a time of flux, of competing efforts to define the direction change is going to take.  To put it crudely, things are simultaneously getting much better and much worse.  And “better” and “worse” are relative terms; what one person regards as a good outcome or a victory will seem deplorable to someone.

Does that mean we’re all locked into relativism, with no basis for actions rooted in strong convictions?  Not at all!  I’m wary of ethical and spiritual absolutes: they simplify, and they usually demonize anyone not of the same persuasion.  But everyone needs principles – a focus for loyalty, a source of meaning and value, a well-examined sense of purpose.

So for personal reasons, and for broadly defined cultural reasons, certain things are “largely symbolic,” but all the more valuable for being symbolic.  And certain events also possess great symbolic value.

We should, of course, be wary of demagoguery, whereby an event of questionable importance gets misrepresented (with crucial facts left out or added in).  We should be even more wary of mass hysteria, which is all too easy to stir up these days.

If we don’t recognize the affirmative power of symbols and act accordingly, we’re at the mercy of the same old, same old – the status quo and the daily grind.  Let’s work hard to avoid the predicament that Yeats described in “The Second Coming” (1920): “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

I started this piece a week ago and didn’t see my way through to the end.  I’m wrapping it up and publishing in the aftermath of awful terrorist attacks in Paris.  And those events are not largely symbolic; they rise to another level of significance.  How they may influence, or distract from, the U N Climate Change Conference remains to be seen.  The threats posed by terrorism and by unchecked man-made climate “forcing” are vastly different, but we can’t afford to neglect either one.

I hope to see you Wednesday evening at the Lynwood Theatre for “This Changes Everything,” and maybe also, earlier in the day at City Hall, for EcoAdapt’s workshop on Comprehensive Plan responses to the local impacts of climate change.


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