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Why anti-pipeline organizing isn’t just another protest

Social MovementsWeb Exclusive

By now, the details of the proposed Enbridge pipeline (and its disastrous social and ecological implications) are well-documented, so I’ll spare you. Most people reading this are probably convinced that the pipeline is a horrible idea that should be stopped. This article is more about the how than the why of Enbridge organizing: how are communities responding to the pipeline, how they organizing themselves, and how do their strategies converge and diverge? What constitutes effective resistance, and what’s being resisted? How can pipeline organizing connect different communities and struggles?

The argument here is pretty simple: the creative, grassroots, solidarity-building efforts going on in pipeline organizing differ from conventional environmentalism, and that’s a great thing, because conventional environmentalism sucks. The how of anti-pipeline organizing looks much different when people move beyond traditional strategies of environmental organizing and campaigning. I’m talking about organizing efforts in Victoria because that’s where I live and what I know about, but there are parallels everywhere. Like all alternatives, the creative departures are partial and emergent, so there’s no way to talk about all pipeline organizing. So here are some examples of the exciting currents of anti-pipeline organizing that are creating and sustaining community resistance:

1) Pipeline organizing is about more than protest. This Sunday, April 15th there’s a rally and teach-in to contest the proposed Enbridge pipeline. The rally is the conventional part, and it’s what usually happens after rallies that make them so sad: everyone goes home (Sunday will be different). Everyone is familiar with protest conventions: everyone meets in front of a building, chants slogans, marches to a different building, there are some impassioned speeches, we chant at the building for a while… and then we all go home.

Protests can create excitement, a sense of unity, and they can be fun. But they don’t create much space for people to think through problems together, or to figure out what to do next, and how: often that work is reserved for the ‘campaigners’ (the people who organize the rally and make all the decisions) and the rest of us are just a big mass to be mobilized and then dispersed. April 15th will be different: after the rally, there’s a whole series of workshops and panel discussions on topics like alternative energy, direct action, anti-oppression, indigenous solidarity and much more. Maybe most importantly, there will be space for people to form working groups, so that we can be more than just a momentarily-mobilized mass together. These kinds of practices create space for people to get involved in meaningful ways. This is the same thing that made the “#OCCUPY” movement so important (and so threatening): beyond the vague denunciations of the 1%, there was genuine space for people to come together and talk to each other, connect the ‘big’ political problems with everyday life, and figure out how to take action together.

2) Pipeline organizing is about more than Enbridge. The diverse workshop themes reflect the insight that this is about much more than Enbridge, or other pipelines, or oil. They help dispense with the fantasy that we are all the same and that there’s a single enemy out there: they create space to talk about oppressions that divide communities, connecting everyday life to the pipeline and the institutions that support it. They connect the pipeline to much longer historical processes like colonialism and enclosure that make the pipeline possible, and they remind us that these processes are ongoing rather than something that happened ‘back then.’ This unsettles conventional environmental narratives that we are the good guys, often pointing to the embarrassing fact that this ‘we’ is often settlers who benefit from continuing colonization and resource extraction. The implications of colonialism and our involvement in it is a problem to be worked through, which makes collective space and discussion all the more urgent. Workshops include speakers who unpack colonialism and connect it to resource extraction.

This Sunday’s rally doesn’t seem to include your standard roster of speakers: the prominent politicians and environmental NGO directors are nowhere to be found. Why?

3) Pipeline organizing is community-based and non-professionalized. Centuries of capitalism, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy has left most Canadians pretty stunted in our politics, and mainstream environmentalism is no exception: it tends to funnel us back into practices that promote isolation, individualism, and dependence on government and politicians. Plus it’s kind of boring. Over the past 3-4 decades, environmentalism has become professionalized and institutionalized in NGOs that need to demonstrate quantifiable success through measurable goals (how many petition signatures? Did you achieve your campaign objectives? How many donations did your campaign receive?)

This kind of environmental politics can be effective, but in a very limited way: it’s great at generating a coherent and unified message, getting favourable coverage in mainstream media, and gathering a huge list of names for email updates. Sometimes this can achieve short-term objectives: if a government thinks it will cost them too many votes, they might change their minds about a particular project. Derrick Jensen is famous for mocking this kind of politics, where protests and press coverage can become ends in themselves, making it harder to imagine other forms of resistance…

Mainstream environmental politics is about the masses: mobilizing the masses, disseminating information to the masses, and urging the masses to undertake discrete, individualized action (send a letter to your MP and tell them you oppose the pipeline!). But that’s about it: the masses stay masses, with few opportunities to talk to each other, formulate problems collectively, and figure out how to do stuff together. In contrast, (parts of) anti-pipeline organizing in Victoria is creating space for horizontal and diverse political responses. It’s not focused on criticizing or dismissing more conventional environmentalism, but instead on creating space for other, more creative forms of environmentalism to take root.

These spaces aren’t just about building a group of people who oppose the pipeline in principle: they’re spaces for figuring out collectively how to organize, oppose, and stop the pipeline—and how to dismantle the institutions and structures that support and reinforce it. And these spaces are way more inspiring and fun than protests and petitions. Anyway, that’s why I’m showing up on April 15th: because after we’re done chanting slogans, there’s space to sit down together, learn from each other, and do politics collectively. Hope to see you there!

  • Nick Montgomery is a Victoria-based writer who blogs at Many Politics.*

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