Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the Twenty-First Century

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12 Min Read

August 2, 2022

What is the coalition that must be assembled in order to produce a just and sustainable future? Climate justice activists have long struggled to answer this question. Certainly any attempt to produce a better world must be led by more than self-identified environmentalists, scientists, or policymakers. As the environmental justice movement in and beyond North America has pointed out, an elite, white, and Global North-led attempt to protect “Nature” is severely limited. By contrast, the intersectional and anti-colonial leadership by Indigenous peoples, peasants, farmers, and the global poor has fought to protect and defend alternative relationships with land, water, and non-human ecologies. Furthermore, workers, unionized or rank-and-file, have demonstrated the importance of struggles over the workplace and point of production shunted by environmentalists. But how could any movement get all of these people in the same tent, fighting for a unified goal? 

My book Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the Twenty-First Century examines the exciting potential and real limits that some organizers have faced in trying to answer this eminently political question through their efforts to delay or stop a continental oil pipeline buildout. For a moment in the 2010s, elements of the climate justice movement in North America tested out whether the language of “the people” could help stitch together a viable coalition in struggles against pipelines in the North American midwest. A common enemy of elites such as corrupt politicians and corporations, it was felt, would stand in stark contrast to a reinvigorated democratic, and multiracial populism. In uniting these diverse constituencies, it was often thought that, as a Sunrise Movement leader recently put it, “The goal of populist political messaging [was] to invoke different circumstances among the target audiences in order to forge a sense of equivalence among them.” In the fight against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa, this led some activists, organizers, and regular people to enact what I see as a form of “populist environmentalism” in hopes of producing a mass movement for climate justice that included a wide array of environmentalists, old and young people, Indigenous nations, farmers, and ranchers. 

I’m especially interested in understanding the role that emotions play in moving people toward political action that they never would have undertaken otherwise. For instance, non-indigenous or “settler” landowners I interviewed frequently described how initial relationships with cavalier land agents sparked indignation or anger at the sudden appearance of a pipeline through what they took to be “their” land. Such motivations to consolidate their individual private property rights contrasted with the longer history of anti-colonial leadership from the Oceti Sakowin Oyate and other native nations along the pipeline’s route, whose struggle for the land instead fit within a broader fight for Indigenous sovereignty. But maybe, political organizers figured, there was a way to channel such emotions into what one described to me as “long term structural change” or even decolonization. These are some of the possibilities that populism, as a somewhat flexible or even transitional political genre, seemed to open in recent pipeline struggles in the United States.

I’m especially interested in understanding the role that emotions play in moving people toward political action that they never would have undertaken otherwise.

On the other hand, any movement attempting to produce a unified political identity must grapple with the divergent desires that its participants might have. There is no easy escape from history, though the populist environmentalism I write about sometimes tended to avoid a full grappling with legacies of settler colonialism. I argue that their attempts to foreground unity in climate justice resulted in a “lowest common denominator” approach to coalition building, which reinforced a kind of civic nationalism and skepticism towards the supposed “foreign” source behind nefarious oil politics–whether it was imagined to be China or Canada. More radical critiques of the foundation of pipeline buildouts in Indigenous dispossession and capitalist extraction were sometimes suppressed by the worry that such language or politics might alienate other coalition members. It is certainly easier to fight a common enemy than build a common political programme!

Image courtesy of the author.

Reflecting on these differing orientations and their partial origins in political emotions, I argue, can help us build better political coalitions in all sorts of struggles, in and beyond energy, climate, and environmentalism. But perhaps especially for climate justice movements, a reminder that we need not only to build coalitions but also to move them politically–and emotionally–can help manifest a more robust politics than populism has offered in the past. 

Kai Bosworth is a geographer who teaches international studies in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. His book Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the 21st Century is available from the University of Minnesota Press.

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