Six years ago, hundreds of Canadians — among them, community leaders, environmentalists, and indigenous organizations — gathered in front of Ottawa’s Parliament Hill to push back against the Keystone XL pipeline. The beat of a native drum kept protesters energized. Activists passed around flyers to sign people up for future campaigns. A well-oiled organizers’ machine distributed rugs, water, and other items to demonstrators. That day, more than 100 people were arrested attempting to deliver a symbolic message against a proposed pipeline project.
The fight against the XL pipeline began on the backs of the indigenous people in Canada and rapidly spread to communities along the pipeline route in the United States. The once-obscure energy project became an environmental flashpoint and eventually was put on hold by the Obama administration. The Keystone XL wasn’t even supposed to be a highly charged political issue; the pipeline could have been up and running years ago, had continent-wide protesters not taken it on in its infancy.
So, when the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project began just outside of Standing Rock, the foundations of collective action had already been built. The protesters made connections across the continent to reject the outdated outlook on energy. In that story, their struggle offered us clues on how to translate moral courage and cross-border solidarity into political victories. But under the current economic model, growth takes precedence over the preservation of our natural world.
And now, Donald Trump threatens to plunge us into climate chaos. His cabinet of billionaires, who are self-described climate deniers, are determined to gut climate regulations, including resurrecting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Trump is also expected to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, at a time when the window for action is fast closing.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the Trudeau government is positioning itself to accommodate Trump’s America by gleefully applauding the Keystone pipeline. These projects not only have a range of serious environmental impacts, with the risk of spills and water contamination but also radically undermine the effort to create clean energy security. This is a stark reminder that a genuine political alternative must come from below: grassroots organizations interested in radical reform of environmental and economic policy must take the lead and no longer take a backseat to the established political parties. We must demand accountability, regardless of political affiliation. We cannot succeed if we are tied down to top-down politics that is inherently hostile to protest movements.
Trends like these emphasize the importance of disruptive social movements that put power in the hands of local communities: an optimistic vision of politics that draws energy from moral unity rather than fear and division. One that not only resists Trump but unites under a common core to offer a coherent alternative.
We’re in a transformative political era.
Protests like the historic Women’s March and the fight against DAPL are inspiring starts. A broad coalition of like-minded people who are organized around a need for a new kind of politics is emerging. Outrage is erupting in town halls across America. Last month, Louisiana saw growing resistance to the Bayou Bridge pipeline, and in Canada, activists shut down pipelines delivering tar sands oil to the U.S.
For protesters, a breaking point that resembles the beginning of the Tea Party has been reached. Donald Trump won the presidency, but he doesn’t have much of a mandate. In fighting him on issues from climate change to his xenophobic immigration policies, a large number of the public views Trump’s agenda as unpalatable.
But for our collective stirring to succeed, we need to focus our energy and frustration on precise targets. That means we need to narrow down our differences and build transnational coalitions that challenge not only destructive climate policies, but also the root causes of social, economic, and political injustice that paved Trump’s path to power.