After joining this weekend’s First Nations-led protest (comprised of the Tseil-Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam nations) against the Kinder-Morgan Transmountain Pipeline expansion, Greenpeace activists today locked down its Burnaby terminus.
It was a move clearly designed to coincide with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Throne Speech—a textbook example of Greenpeace’s stated aim to ‘bear witness’ to the mistreatment of our planet.
At a talk sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University earlier this month, Darin Barney, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Technology & Citizenship at McGill University, spoke on ‘Pipelines and the Politics of Sabotage’. The talk was interesting, drawing parallels between the ways in which work-stoppages (from which the terminology of ‘sabotage’ derives) and intentional slowing, particularly of coal transport, were fundamental tools in organized labour’s successes in securing many of the main planks of the modern welfare state (much of this part of the talk was an analysis of Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil). Barney was particularly concerned to see if the conceptualization of ‘sabotage’ along these sorts of lines—concentrated around the development and construction of pipelines to bring bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to market—could provide a model for opposition to them.
Unfortunately, as Barney admitted at the end of his lecture, the comparison between this early success on the part of labour—using the transportation of coal to motivate changes in labour-related conditions—doesn’t quite track across to the desire many of us have to see the cessation of development in the tar sands. Essentially, the type of sabotage that Mitchell and Barney identify is hostage taking, and the threat of hostage taking as a strategy to obtain some goal is only useful if the body that is meant to accede to those demands has the expectation of the return of the hostage. Threatening to kill a hostage for which your demanded ransom is that the body from which you took the hostage in the first place agrees to kill the hostage once it is returned just doesn’t wash.
But I’ve been giving some thought to this. At Barney’s talk, I was interested to see what his perspective might be with regard to a model of sabotage that reflects what most of us likely think of first when we hear the word: wartime. In that context, sabotage is a mimicry of organized labour’s use of work stoppage or slowing, except that, in wartime, rather than the rights of workers to a larger piece of the pie or better working conditions, sabotage is undertaken in the service of another power, against the one that is currently in control of whatever territory in which the saboteur is active.
In wartime, sabotage is a model that is applied differently, depending on the attitude that one has with regard to the saboteur—a saboteur working for you is a hero, whose sneaky fifth-column activity may spell the difference between a conventional action working or not. If the saboteur is working against you, the representation often tends towards seeing her or him as treasonous, dirty, subversive—criminal.
When the title ‘Pipelines and the Politics of Sabotage’ came across my in-box, I frankly expected it to deal with this latter type of sabotage—sabotage that seeks not to leverage pinch-points in a system for what amounts to unrelated political advantage, but rather sabotage that is destructive at exactly those pinch points, in the service of an external power.
When it got the the end of Barney’s lecture, I asked the question, but built into it a sense of despair, knowing that, well, there is no other power.
This week, I published a piece on the current Russian imprisonment of 30 Greenpeace activists as the result of a direct action that amounted to hanging a banner off of a not-yet-operational drilling platform that the state-controlled Gazprom company has built near Murmansk. These activists have been charged with piracy, despite neither international or Russian national law even possibly being understood along these lines. In that piece, I compared our global population to a terminal alcoholic, whose destructive behaviour is finally, despite our less-sober moments as a global species, being recognized as such. I suggested there that
An appeal to a higher power is not going to work in a passive sense. There is no coming redemption. The alcoholic here is not some third person—it’s all of us.
And this got me thinking again about my despair that the model of sabotage-as-hostage-taking couldn’t apply to opposition to the tar sands.
Because there isn’t another power. There’s just us. All of us. And we need some waking up. The First Nations and Greenpeace participated in two days of action that seek to do precisely this.
The dismissive tone in the Edmonton Journal piece on Greenpeace’s action today (‘Protesters blockade Kinder-Morgan pipeline but fail to disrupt operations’) is indicative of the failure by those invested in the short-term economic benefit to understand that the sabotage that those opposed to the continued development of the tar sands, and to the increase of pipeline capacity and tanker traffic on the coast of British Columbia is not about stopping a tanker getting filled. It’s about sabotaging minds.
If the Transmountain pipeline expansion goes through, by Kinder-Morgan’s own admission, tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet will increase sevenfold. We’re past the point where we need to put control of such decisions in the hands of the people who will be affected by them, not just profit from them in the short term. This is a short-term political goal that many organizations have in their sights, and I believe that, with continued opposition, we can effect changes like this.
The more profound shift, though, will come as we surrender to the need for change. As we recognize that our elected leaders are corporate shills that don’t care about us, except when we vote. As we become willing to face up to the degree of sacrifice that we will need to make on a planetary scale.
It’s not going to be easy. Sometimes, people in orange suits need to chain themselves to a fence. Sometimes First Nations will need to perform ceremonies to heal the waters. And maybe, if we’re lucky, and we can sabotage our current way of thinking and acting on a profound level, we might look back on those who stand for us now as the sorts of heroes that we think of when we realize the enormous effort in the face of overwhelming odds that saboteurs make in time of war.