An invitation to conspire against the Keystone XL pipeline, and what it symbolizes

Principal author:
John L. Clark

The current environmentalist coalition, led by, is rallying people to write to the US State Department and the President in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. The following is what I wrote. My favorite quote from this letter is: “Those who relentlessly pursue economic growth do so out of fear that prosperity is impossible without growth, and in this way they are slaves to this insatiable impulse; this situation is intensely dangerous and hurtful to everyone involved.” Writing this feels so natural to me, and so naturally makes me radically happy.

This particular open comment period runs until April 22, although we are free to raise our voices in support of the truth at all times. I encourage you to also submit a note signaling your opposition to the pipeline, as well as why you oppose it.

President Barack Obama, and all those working in support of his policies, including Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department:

The intense pressures coming from many directions around the Keystone XL decision provide me with an opportunity to compose my thoughts and offer you some encouragement. Making a choice against the pipeline, or against other forms of energy use, would cut against the expectations and plans of many people. I see how much money corporations are able to generate from energy projects, and I recognize how much power and influence emanates from that money. In fact, one aspect of my opposition to the pipeline derives from how easily this power can be abused. For example, the main company involved in producing the latest environmental impact statement about the pipeline for the State Department has business ties to TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline. It is a struggle for me not to see the wealthy investors in these corporations as an enemy; instead I work to realize the intense pressure we all feel to promote prosperity in our society. And so I frame this note in the context of exploring the economic reality that looms over so many other considerations, including environmental impacts. It is hard to bring ourselves to question deeply-held assumptions, but I believe it is particularly vital to do so in this case. As a Christian, I treasure opportunities to put myself at the service of others, so I hope you accept any help that I can offer, both in this note and beyond.

When it comes to economics, many people who identify with sharply differing groups—across, for example, broad party gaps and distant national boundaries—work very generally to execute a common program: that of economic growth. You may note your own work to achieve this goal, such as with your call for an “all of the above” strategy for exploiting energy sources. This focus on growth has been present since (and contributed substantially to) the founding of the United States, and we can see it going back even further; to provide two examples, recent economists have emphasized the critical importance of economic growth almost continually, as, earlier, so many Americans (and immigrants) in the 19th century rushed to expand into the perceived frontier. The pursuit of growth underwrites the history of civilization. In this historical sketch we see how the pursuit of growth is continuous, and this history aligns well with the economic language that many continue to use. Those who relentlessly pursue economic growth do so out of fear that prosperity is impossible without growth, and in this way they are slaves to this insatiable impulse; this situation is intensely dangerous and hurtful to everyone involved. We need to understand this better.

Steady growth is, in fact, anything but steady to whatever is growing; instead it leads to a progressive instability and the erosion of resilience. When a system continues to grow, it puts pressure on everything else around it, eventually doing damage to some or all of these things, including itself. In addition, economic growth is an instance of exponential growth, so this pressure is felt shockingly quickly. As one effect, economic growth puts sharp pressure on our societies, bringing forth war and other social conflicts. This is frightening enough, but we also need to examine the environmental pressures that economic growth causes.

All economic activity is driven by energy (in addition to requiring material resources and skilled interaction). Economic growth, then, requires exponentially increasing energy utilization. One of the most immediate problems from the enormous scale of industrial activity is waste and pollution, and one of the most prominent aspects of this problem is global warming. Do you wonder about how exponentially increasing consumption can continue? In truth, it cannot; nor will it. And as outlined above, basing our policy on such a fundamental contradiction has destructive effects. I urge you in the strongest possible terms to follow the instinct you have to explore any wonder and uneasiness that any of this may evoke in you. Work to engage everyone possible in a discussion about what this means, including (but certainly not limited to) people who have been thinking hard about the daunting problems posed by economic growth, people such as Richard Heinberg, Naomi Klein, Albert Bartlett, Tim DeChristopher, David Suzuki, Gail Tverberg, Tom Murphy, and many others. None of these have the complete answer, so also reach out to others who can provide moral and practical perspectives on these problems.

Your pending decision on whether to permit the Keystone XL pipeline to be built has relatively recently come to symbolize an expanding set of larger problems. Exploiting the tar sands in Alberta (and elsewhere) is a clear instance of the destructiveness of economic growth, both locally in terms of the harm done to people and ecosystems near the tar sands mines and along the pipeline routes, as well as globally in terms of global warming and other environmental and economic effects. Please reject this pipeline, both on its own merits, as well as a symbol of greater efforts that we must undertake: ending tar sands exploitation, ending our addiction to fossil fuels, rejecting our slavery to growth, and starting to move towards the beautiful world that we crave.

The first and most important step to defeating slavery of all forms is to recognize what it is that enslaves us and to accept the gift of freedom. Again, as a Christian, I see this freedom as offered by God, and I thirst for it with my whole self, for both myself and others. There is no reason to remain bound to a program of economic growth, with all of its attendant harm. Stop the pipeline, and then start a conversation towards completely reversing your policy, working towards “none of the above” when it comes to clinging to economic growth out of fear. This fear can seep into so much of our lives, leading us to compromise to obtain power and achieve our goals, but that fear whispers lies to us. The way forward is simple, but I certainly acknowledge that it is not easy, until you realize how much support you have. Embracing that support does require a great deal of trust and courage. I certainly offer my own complete support as you move along this way.


John L. Clark

P.S. I have also published this online at <>, where the text includes inline references.

This page was first published on 2013-04-18 10:31:00-05:00.

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