As director of pipeline outreach for Bold Nebraska, I am often asked to give a summary of why the Keystone XL pipeline is a bad idea. I usually outline a list of concerns, including the threat to the Ogallala aquifer, the mistreatment of landowners by TransCanada, the illogical economics of oil-supply bottleneck-breaking and the lack of appropriate pipeline regulations. Finding reasons to oppose the pipeline, and articulating those reasons to the public, is what I do on a daily basis.
Another part of my job is to travel my home state of Nebraska, visiting landowners not only along the current Keystone I pipeline route, but also those along the proposed Keystone XL route. What I have found during my travels is that this pipeline carries a cost that cannot be quantified in an Environmental Impact Statement. There is a human cost to this pipeline, and in my opinion, the price humanity will have to pay is more dear than the value of oil or water or jobs.
In a 2010 New York Times article entitled "Is There an Ecological Unconscious?" author Daniel Smith discusses the psychological damage to people displaced from their homeland and its similarity to the psychological damage felt by people who perceive an environmental threat to their homeland. Although the article discusses coal mining in Australia, the same is true for Tar Sands extraction in Canada and pipeline construction in the United States. Smith quotes Glenn Albrecht, who discusses the phrase "heart's ease," and then elaborates:
“People have heart’s ease when they’re on their own country. If you force them off that country, if you take them away from their land, they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life.” Australian aborigines, Navajos and any number of indigenous peoples have reported this sense of mournful disorientation after being displaced from their land. What Albrecht realized . . . was that this “place pathology,” as one philosopher has called it, wasn’t limited to natives. Albrecht’s petitioners were anxious, unsettled, despairing, depressed — just as if they had been forcibly removed from the valley. Only they hadn’t; the valley changed around them.
Albrecht also coined the term "solastalgia," which, in his words, means “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’ ”
I hear this sickness in the voices of people I talk to who are concerned about the Keystone XL pipeline. I see it on the faces of farmers and ranchers I visit, who quite often are friends and family in the Sandhills, such as my brother, who rents land that will be crossed by the pipeline, and whose house will be less than a mile away from a pumping station.
Solastalgia is what I see as perhaps one of the most destructive effects of the mining of tar sands and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. As a Sandhills native who grew up drinking water from the Ogallala aquifer, I feel it myself. To me the Keystone XL pipeline is a waking nightmare. I have visions of the huge scar it will leave on the Sandhills, the poison it will put into some of the last pure water left on earth. It's distressing for me to think about, and I'm not alone in this feeling--there are numerous others who share it.
Although I have observed this distress most among the farmers and ranchers I have met along the pipeline routes, it is also evident in many other people, from urbanite environmentalists concerned about the Sandhills and Ogallala aquifer, to Tea Party conservatives frustrated by the eminent domain abuse and personal property invasions of TransCanada. Anxiety about the safety of our land and water is universal. This universality is one Smith discusses in his article:
Just as the loss of “heart’s ease” is not limited to displaced native populations, solastalgia is not limited to those living beside quarries — or oil spills or power plants or Superfund sites. Solastalgia, in Albrecht’s estimation, is a global condition, felt to a greater or lesser degree by different people in different locations but felt increasingly, given the ongoing degradation of the environment. As our environment continues to change around us, the question Albrecht would like answered is, how deeply are our minds suffering in return?
The answer to Albrecht's question is as elusive as mental anguish is difficult to quantify. It does, however, prompt another question in my mind, which is: Can we do something to ease this suffering? The answer, of course, is "Yes." We can do something, and many of us are doing something.
The fact that so many people from so many places are joining together to fight Tar Sands oil production and the Keystone XL pipeline reinforces Albrecht's theory of global impact, and strengthens the argument that together, in a global effort, we can slow down, stop and even reverse that impact. What Tar Sands oil production means for our future has had a great unifying effect, which is evident in the many different faces of opposition to dirty oil and dangerous pipelines. What is at stake is more than oil or jobs or water or money. The phrase "quality of life" no longer applies--we are dealing simply with life. Our existence as human beings on this planet is on the line.
Beginning Saturday, I will be driving with my friend and fellow pipeline fighter David Daniel along the pipeline route from Texas to Nebraska, then east to Washington, D.C. Along the way, we will share our stories, gather the stories of others, and spread the word about our country's dark future if we continue to feed our addiction to dirty foreign oil. When we get to our nation's capital, we will be ready to stand with others who care about the health of this planet and the future of its people. I hope to see you there.