Carol A. Hand
“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”
– Albert Einstein
“You will only learn what you already know.”
-John McKnight, Sufi Story
This week’s social policy class was difficult — not because of the enthusiastic hard-working students. It is always a difficult subject for me to teach because I need to stay on top of troubling current events and somehow find a place of hope for the future before I can encourage students to work for change. The evening before class, I was reading the news and realized for the first time the magnitude of danger and stupidity involved in the Enbridge Energy Pipeline. A day later, I’m still uncertain about what I can do to help avert disaster, let alone contribute to positive alternatives.
Photo Credits: Google Enbridge Pipeline images
The pipeline that carries dirty tar sands oil laden with toxic chemicals around the Great Lakes already exists, threatening one-third of the fresh water on earth. At a public hearing last evening in Duluth, I listened to the proposal Enbridge has pending with the state to expand their pumping capacity – to pump more dirty oil to refineries into the state and across the headwaters of the Mississippi River, under and around the Great Lakes, through wetlands and wildrice beds, and through tribal lands in violation of treaty rights. I went to listen, observe, and learn, not to testify.
This morning (another snowy one), I am still reflecting as the winds from the southeast bring the toxic heavy fumes from the nearby factories. I am struggling to find hope for the future. I wish I could press the rewind button to change the past. What did I think was so important at the time the pipeline was being built that I didn’t pay attention to what Enbridge was doing? What small local issues felt so important that I missed attending to the larger threats? Yet those questions are only unproductive distractions. The question should be what can I do now? Listening to the people who spoke last night has left me with another question, is it already too late? I decided to write about my initial observations and reflections as a foundation for dialogue with others who may have insights.
Ever the storyteller, I need to begin with “one true sentence.” I don’t like to attend group meetings. Yesterday, I found myself looking for any excuse not to go to the evening hearing — driving at night is hard because I can’t see well enough, taking the bus at night would add hours to the commute across town because busses run so infrequently, going alone into a crowd of unknown but probably opinionated cliquish strangers is so uncomfortable, I have nothing to add to the conversations because I don’t know the history or science. I had to ask myself if I really cared enough to go anyway, and even though it was counter to the underlying concern to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel, I called a cab and showed up with more than 100 other people in the basement conference room of a downtown hotel.
Because it was a public hearing to consider Enbridge’s request to expand an already existing pipeline, Enbridge staff and lawyers, key state agencies charged with making the final decision, and an administrative judge to conduct the hearing, sat at tables in the front of the room. The final decision rests in the hands of state decision makers based on state laws that consider only if the proposed energy-related expansion is necessary to promote the public interest of state citizens, to protect life and safety. It was difficult to listen to the Enbridge staff and lawyers try to justify the need for expansion and glorify their commitment to the environment and well-being of communities. Of course, their assurances of corporate commitment to safety rang hollow to me in light of the profit motive and their attempts to justify a xenophobic national agenda to reduce dependence on imported oil from unfriendly Arab states by partnering with our friendly neighbor to the north.
Photo Credit: Google Enbridge Pipeline images
Enbridge had planned well. Knowing that the order of speakers would be based on the when they arrived and signed in, the first five people to testify spoke in favor of the proposed expansion. All had carefully-crafted written speeches that emphasized the economic benefits through employment opportunities and increased tax revenues, and like the other eight supportive speakers, all had direct economic links to Enbridge. (I did stifle an incredulous chuckle as the Red Cross representative who spoke in support of Enbridge praised their corporate commitment and past efforts in disaster relief.)
The opposition testimony (two-thirds of the speakers) varied from emotional appeals to protect the water and earth to citing scientific studies about the urgency of addressing climate change by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and non-renewable energy sources. Others documented Enbridge’s history of oil spills and noted specific observations about the carelessness of their building and maintenance practices, or their failure to follow treaty provisions when crossing tribal lands.
I listened, observed, and took notes. Today, I am trying to sort out my overall insights. First, I need to reflect on the opening remarks of the administrative judge. He explained that the meeting room was set up with a table for speakers so everyone could speaker to each other as neighbors and community members. I’m not sure that happened. Half of the audience would applaud after those in support of Enbridge spoke (the woman seated next to me was among them), and the other half would applaud for those who presented their opposition (I was among that half). Although many spoke with passion, their words did not touch my heart because I didn’t sense their hearts in their words. Perhaps it was fear of speaking in public, but even fear is ego-motivated. Only one woman had the presence of mind to stand and face the audience as she testified, with her back to those at the front tables. Her words came the closest to touching others who expressed differing views.
As I reflect on the perspectives of those who spoke in support of expansion, I realize that no one offered viable alternatives to meet their legitimate economic concerns. They need Enbridge to support their families. Do we have viable alternative energy businesses to absorb businesses and workers reliant on old oil technologies? Do we have universities and technical colleges that can help them retool? Their support for the continuation and expansion of our reliance on old technology is understandable, but no one in the room who opposed expansion acknowledged this, so the room remained divided. It seemed as though the supporters of expansion were forced into a position of denying climate change to defend a perspective that was characterized as ignorant and self-interested. Opponents could leave and feel self-righteous and blame their failure to reach others’ hearts because the others were ignorant and self-interested, not really a part of our community.
This is the challenge of being between cultures – the need to understand different perspectives from an empathetic middle. It doesn’t answer the larger questions of what I can do, but I can begin to explore ways to address legitimate concerns and bridge cultural divides. And I can ask the blogging community, many of whom who are far more knowledgeable than I for help. I welcome dialogue, links and creative, inclusive ideas.
Photo Credit: Goggle Enbridge Pipeline images (with edits)
In the meantime, I will live with the knowledge that a “disaster-waiting-to-happen” is not far from my front yard. I will continue to explore whether it is possible for the community to come together to imagine an alternative future that is inclusive or whether opposing sides will remain divided in the certainty that only their side knows the right answer.
Photo Credit: Kalamazoo Pipeline (2010)
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