The Keystone XL pipeline has long been a subject of debate ever since TransCanada first proposed exporting crude oil derived from oil sands in Canada to the United States. Now the U.S. State Department has issued an assessment saying that the pipeline poses no environmental risk, devastating environmentalists everywhere. Many are expecting the Obama administration to give the final go ahead in the not too distant future.
During this entire debate that has stretched many years, the left has appeared fragmented. On one side you have had environmentalists and some labor activists like those in the Blue Green Alliance opposing the pipeline, while on the other side you have had corporate Democrats and national unions like the building trades and LIUNA supporting it. Even the AFL-CIO has expressed their approval for Keystone XL because of the perceived potential for job creation.
As much as progressives like myself would have liked to see Keystone XL never enter this country, because oil sands crude is a carbon time bomb; the truth is that the oil was going to enter the U.S. no matter what. The powers that be in Canada are ready to send their crude oil by rail car if the Obama administration denied the permit. There are also many policy makers in the U.S. who would love to solidify a partnership like this to become less dependent on the Middle East and Venezuela for oil. Even polling is against us as a majority of Americans approve of the pipeline. So where does this leave the progressives who see this pipeline, climate change and the eroding state of our environment as threats to our well being and future?
Actually, when you step back and look at the modern environmental movement as a whole, one can't help but feel defeated. While efforts of the LGBT community and even gun control advocates have made tremendous gains in the last few years, we seem to be witnessing the roll back of all that the environmental movement worked to achieve in its heyday.
The truth is that people just don't seem to care about environmental issues like they once did and while part of the reason for this is thanks to special interests and public relations firms, the other problem is that the movement has forgotten how to organize. We have to work on building a movement from the ground up that encompasses all. Environmentalists need to start looking at community organizing models and learning how to build power. What we also have to do more of is coalition building and working with other groups in the progressive movement. There are numerous issues that intersect with the work of progressive organizations whether they be economically or socially focused.
Environmentalism has to get to the point where it is fully embraced by people living in low income and majority-minority communities. We need their involvement and you have to make our fight their fight. This is what Van Jones has sought to do as well as the NAACP. This work must continue so that when major environmental issues arise, eventually, we will be organized. Part of the problem of what Jones has highlighted is the fact that smaller environmental justice groups, those working in the aforementioned communities, don't get the attention of large donors who direct funds to the big environmental organizations.
As for the labor and the environmental movement, we'll have to accept that there are always going to be differences of opinion. We'll have to work together where we can and respectfully disagree when we cannot. But I will say that there is importance in not being completely wed to a single-issue. One example would be like when pro-choice groups endorse Republicans for being pro-choice. Yes, they're good on that one issue but they are usually horrible on all the other issues that the left cares about. Hopefully the labor movement will slowly realize that it's not just about them. If they want to rebuild themselves from the low levels of unionization we now see, they too will have to reach out to the broader progressive movement. We've already seen that the AFL-CIO is capable of doing exactly that when it comes to working with groups on immigration issues.
Labor activists and union members who are opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline need to keep on pushing the labor movement in the direction of being better environmentalists. They must speak boldly and with conviction any chance they get. Remember, there was a time when women and minorities were unwelcome in the house of labor, that changed and so too will their views on the environment and being a part of the broader progressive coalition.
If we are going to make change in the 21st century we on the left are all going to have to work together a lot more.