Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How a moral compass led to a D.C. jail


"The only thing we need in here is more company. We don't need your sympathy, we need your company."

—Bill McKibben, Aug. 21, 2011, from a jail cell in Washington, D.C.

It is an old saw that recommends picking battles wisely in order to focus one's finite energies on battles that most matter. There is no more important battle in our time than that of the health of the Earth, which directly affects the health of all its inhabitants, including human ones, even those who subscribe to the Orwellian absurdity and commandment that "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

The health of the Earth directly, immediately and cumulatively impacts all that lives on it and all the descendants of all that will ever live here. People who profess "family values" without including in their thoughts and actions the family of man itself for at least the next seven generations and the web of life for longer than that are as absurd as, say, Mitt Romney, who last month summed up the thinking of the U.S. Supreme Court and his own political fantasies when he told a group of angry Iowans (bravo to Iowa's angry), "Corporations are people, my friend."

An honest, forthright enemy is safer, cleaner and more honorable than a friend like that. A corporation is not a person. It is an artificial construct designed to make economic profit for its owners. As such, there is nothing wrong with a corporation. But it lacks, among other things, biology, brain, heart, soul, instinct, empathy, compassion, and a moral compass.

Despite corporations' posing as people, creationists posing as thinkers and politicians posing as realists, the health of the Earth today has more good friends than the mainstream media acknowledge, none of them better than Bill McKibben. One should choose heroes as carefully as battles, and one of my longtime heroes is Bill McKibben. He went to jail in D.C. last month along with at least 500 others, including NASA's Dr. James Hansen, for joining some 2,000 people (real ones) who peacefully sat down in front of the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, which, reportedly, "if approved by the administration, would carry 900,000 barrels of oil each day from the "tar sands" in Alberta, Canada, through the American heartland to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Its path would cross over 70 rivers and streams, including the Missouri, Yellowstone and Arkansas. It would also traverse the Ogallala Aquifer, which yields about one third of the groundwater used to irrigate U.S. crops, supports $20 billion in agriculture and supplies potable water to about 2 million people."


The Keystone XL is an environmental disaster or, more likely, disasters, in the making, and among the many White House protesters to its approval were survivors of last year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico whose lives, livelihoods, health, environment and future were devastated by it. Keystone XL is owned by the giant Canadian corporation TransCanada, with assets of more than $45 billion. Its website states, "TransCanada is aware that recent events have heightened public concern about pipeline safety. A fundamental principle for the company and the entire pipeline industry is the protection of the public from the effects of pipeline incidents." The BP website states, "We are committed to the protection of the natural environment, to the safety of the communities in which we operate, and to the health, safety and security of our people."

So much for corporate spin from the nightmare/fantasy world of robotic artificial constructs posing as more-equal-than-others real people.

McKibben said, "Keystone XL is going to be the defining environmental issue between now and the 2012 election," and he has the qualities, environmental credentials and marketing skills to make it so. McKibben's website describes him as "author, educator, environmentalist," but it is not too much to add that he is also the conscience of the American environmental movement, in the lineage of Henry David Thoreau—a man for our time. He has written more than a dozen books about and is a tireless activist for the health of the Earth, which is in steep decline. In 1849, Thoreau went to jail in New Hampshire for refusing to pay the poll tax, which helped support slavery, an institution that he detested. Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have visited his friend in jail and asked, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" to which Thoreau famously replied, "Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?"

Emerson missed Thoreau's point because he thought society required a complete spiritual rebirth in order to reform itself and address its evils. Thoreau understood that if we as individuals do not distinguish right from wrong and act upon it, we neglect our conscience and will eventually become morally numb. And dumb.

That's why Bill McKibben, a hero and man for our times in 2011, jailed for defending the health of planet earth, said, "We don't need your sympathy, we need your company."

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