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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > March 2013 > Sierra Club, Calling the Shots

Sierra Club, Calling the Shots

Friday 1 March 2013, by Anne Guay

Sierra Club has declared civil disobedience in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline. A protest outside of the Whitehouse February 13 saw Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s Executive Director, get arrested. The February 17th protest in Washington DC won an impressive estimated turnout of 35,000 environmental activists saying no to the pipeline, conceived to funnel Alberta’s heavy crude into US Gulf coast refineries. Opposition is rising not only in great numbers as the largest climate rally to make US history, but in the unprecedented authority that is Sierra Club’s nonviolent resistance.

Sierra Club is a non-political, charitable organization whose missionto protect the environment includes "us[ing] all lawful means to carry out [its] objectives," and has successfully upheld this policy for its 120 years of existence. So, for this highly reputed institution to shelve one of its long-standing guiding principles, to risk the potential loss of support from key stakeholders means a lot. In Allison Chin’s words, president of Sierra Club USA, it means that "the wrong must be so profound that it demands the strongest defensible protest." And that is how Sierra Club passes the test on its complete dedication to the fulfillment of its mandate. If anything, this is the indicator that something is deeply wrong with the expansion of the Alberta tar sands exploit.
Sierra Club Canada, the fifty year-old cousin of its American counter-part, is in the process of deliberating on whether it will follow suit in choosing civil disobedience. Regardless of what the Canadian entity will decide, it has already said a lot in its very debate to "reassess its rules." A survey published on their website indicates that their supporters are largely in favor of the use of non-violent civil disobedience as a legitimate method of opposing the Canadian government’s tar sand endeavours. In addition, the Club’s President Howie Chong is touring across Canada to assess opinions on the issue. With the survey already in favor, it looks like Canadians are all for civil disobedience. At the very least, the signs are strongly navigating our best guess about their final verdict in the same direction as the one Sierra Club US has taken.

Another reason it will come as no surprise should Sierra Club Canada suspend its policy is that it just makes plain sense. Natural Resources Canada invested a hefty $ 795 million in Clean Energy Funds for 2009-2014. These monies contribute to research for the understanding of the tar sand mining’s environmental impact. So it seems as though the Harper government understands its damage to the environment, implying a conscious choice to act against reason. Given its mandate, Sierra Canada should do everything it can to inject some rationale into government policy.

There are a lot of easy arguments out there supporting the claim that Sierra Club Canada shouldn’t commit to civil disobedience, or that anyone should for that matter. These are usually the claims of climate denialists who would prefer to ignore that global warming is a problem or occurring at all. The Jamestown Sun published an editorial arguing that Keystone or no Keystone, Canadian crude will be sold and "will move by other means that are more fossil fuel intensive, and thus dirtier than an underground pipeline." What is put forth is a mentality of defeat and excuses to do nothing to thwart climate change. Such attacks on the validity of anti-Keystone XL protests clearly do not understand what the movement is about and are simply hand-out disputes. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person, was it about the seat? No. It was about civil rights. By the same token, this isn’t about the pipeline per se, but about an entire movement that has been culminating and increasingly manifesting itself, as evidenced by the Idle No More protests.

The idea of moving towards clean energy is proliferating along with a sense of urgency; we must step away from dirty oil right now. As Executive Director of Sierra Club Michael Brune put it, "this is a decision between what’s right, and what’s easy," countering the popular job creation argument for the pipelines. The argument goes, exploiting our oil will create jobs and this is good for the economy, therefore we should expand the oil sands. Jobs are good for the economy, except it seems to ignore that clean energy also requires a workforce, which would therefore create jobs. (Not to mention that jobs created from oil mining are not sustainable, but that is a whole other can of worms.)

Through their actions and debate, the Sierra Clubs have set the ethical standard on political action and licensed mass peaceful protest. And that is exactly what we need; scientifically grounded and morally reputed organization to give so-called tree huggers legitimacy. We need them to call the shots in the political back and forth that is democracy.

As individuals, Canadian citizens must also question their policies on civil disobedience just as Sierra Club is doing. Are we willing to spend the required efforts and take the necessary risks in order to uphold what is right and just at this critical point in time? Do we really need to wait for a reality check of epic proportions?

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