Joe Orso: Tar Sands protest could spark larger movement

2011-08-21T00:00:00Z Joe Orso: Tar Sands protest could spark larger movementBy Joe Orso Special to the Tribune La Crosse Tribune
August 21, 2011 12:00 am  • 

The world could change this month.

Our federal leaders, as usual, seem poised to give the fossil fuel industry what it wants. TransCanada has proposed building an oil pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands down to Texas. According to scientists and environmentalists, refining the dirty oil from this source causes carbon emissions far higher than conventional oil, and committing to burning the oil from this massive source sets us on a dangerous path.

James Hansen, a leading climatologist, said any chance of stabilizing our climate requires that “coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground. ... If the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.”

At this point the risk remains — both for our planetary community suffering under increased stress from carbon emissions and for the many directly affected by the pipeline’s construction (including, in an all too common pattern, First Nations communities).

But the political equation could soon change.

Visionaries including Wendell Berry, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben and Wes Jackson have joined with indigenous leaders, scientists and others to call on President Barack Obama to refuse a permit for the line, which he has the sole authority to do. In an online invitation, they have also called on people from across the country to join them in Washington, D.C., for what could be a historical moment.

From now until Sept. 3, hundreds and perhaps thousands of citizens are participating in nonviolent civil disobedience, in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., to try to convince Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline.

They say it could be the largest such action concerning climate change on our continent.

Madeleine Para, a primary school teacher from Madison who will travel to D.C. for the protest, hopes the effort could be the spark that gets our country moving in a new direction.

“Instead of putting something in place that’s going to make us keep burning oil for decades, we need to make the investment into things that will get us off fossil fuel,” said  Para, 54, in a phone interview. “It’s the kind of thing that we adults need to deal with now. We can’t put it off to the future and let the 4-year-olds take care of it when they’re grown up.”

Para has never participated in civil disobedience, and the thought of getting arrested makes her nervous. But the urgency she feels about the need to turn things around makes her willing to take the risk.

“We have to get out of our hopelessness about our government,” she said. “The best way to get out of hopelessness is always to take action, whatever step you can think of, and then the next and the next, and not to do it alone.”

The invitation to join the nonviolent action is powerfully written, and the list of signatories gives me hope that this could be the catalyst for change many of us have been awaiting. All four of the signatories I mentioned above have been integral in informing so many of us about the threats our planet and our democracy face, and also in helping us think through new paths for our culture.

Now, they have united with other leaders to take action, and are asking all citizens — not just the college students who have so far led the push-back against environmental destruction – to come to D.C.

They write:

“Now it’s time for people who’ve spent their lives pouring carbon into the atmosphere to step up too, just as many of us did in earlier battles for civil rights or for peace. Most of us signing this letter are veterans of this work, and we think it’s past time for elders to behave like elders.”

Of course, it’s also possible that the demonstrations will barely register on our consciousness, Obama will approve the pipeline, the stability of our planet will be further compromised, and our grandchildren will wonder how we let this all happen.

To read the invitation in full and see how you can get involved, visit

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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