Faces of the grassroots climate movement: rowdy and rowdier

Marches around the country this week show ideological diversity among a new cohort of activists.

 

Tar sands protest banner
Protesters march toward U.S. Oil Sands' test pit, on the East Tavaputs Plateau in Utah's Book Cliffs. The company is moving toward opening the first commercial tar sands mine in the U.S., and began clearing a site for a processing facility down the road this summer.
Last Sunday, under a pocket of blue sky, some 30 people spilled out of vehicles onto Seep Ridge Road, a wide thoroughfare that traverses a remote spine of eastern Utah's Book Cliffs, and is in the process of being paved. Many in the group wore hats or wrapped their heads with scarves, then tied bandanas over their noses and mouths. They looked tough, hard-edged, but not without a sense of humor. One woman carried a shepherd's cane, one man wore a clown mask, and another played tunes like "This Land is Our Land" on a saxophone. The wind whipped them energetically.

The guises were defenses not against the weather, but against the cops and a security camera trained on a test pit for what could soon become the first commercial tar sands mine in the U.S. Tar sands contain an unconventional crude called bitumen, that with a great deal of water and energy can be extracted from sand and rock, and refined into fuel. The industry is big business in Alberta, Canada, and one of the most carbon-intense fossil fuels. U.S. environmentalists have fiercely opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian tar sands crude to U.S. refineries, in a bid to influence further development to the north. Less known, and less opposed nationally, is the push to develop Utah's own tar sands deposits.

The protesters were here to say "no" to the development, because as one explained earlier in the day, "These days, if you're not saying 'no,' you're saying 'yes'." It felt good to say "no," another told me, and to do so publicly.

After all, the politer approaches to solving the climate crisis, the attempts by big environmental groups to work inside the halls of Congress, to compromise, and to wield science to compel action, had failed. It was time, the protesters believed, to confront the problem at its source – carbon spewing projects like this one – and to do so loudly. A few among them unfurled a banner declaring "Together and Everywhere We Rise Up for Climate Justice." The group began to march toward the test pit.

Tar sands protest construction site
Protesters pose for photos at a construction site where U.S. Oil Sands plans to build processing facilities for its mine.

The banner was a nod to the "People's Climate March," underway simultaneously in Manhattan, where a crowd more than 10,000 times the size jammed the streets. Politico called the Manhattan event "a coming-out party for a new breed of environmentalism – one that’s louder and rowdier than the old-school greens who dominated the movement when Barack Obama entered the White House."

Indeed, grassroots groups like 350.org, an organizer of the New York demonstration, have risen in recent years in part in reaction to the failures of the mainstream environmental movement to make meaningful progress on mitigating climate change. They've attempted to move the political system from the outside. In February of last year, they staged a large public protest in Washington D.C. against the Keystone XL pipeline, in which for the first time in its 120-year history, the Sierra Club endorsed an act of civil disobedience – albeit a pretty tame one – and its executive director, Michael Brune, was arrested for tying himself to the White House gates, along with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Bill McKibben, and civil rights activist Julian Bond. They've also pushed universities to divest from fossil fuels. McKibben, one of 350.org's founders, has said the idea is to use universities to make fossil fuel companies social pariahs, and thus erode their political clout. 

But if 350.org and the hundreds of thousands who joined them in Manhattan last weekend represent a new, rowdier faction of the environmental movement, the Utah protesters, and local groups like them around the country, represent the rowdiest new faction.

I spent last weekend with the group, for a future story on the new grassroots climate movement. A handful of activists have lived in the Book Cliffs all summer, staging occasional protests, committing acts of civil disobedience, getting arrested, and looking for leverage to stop the tar sands mine from proceeding.

Though many of them were supportive of the New York march – any protest is better than no protest – they were also critical of it. For one thing, it was planned with the consent of the police, and organizers got a permit, a faux pas among many direct action activists, who thrive on the element of surprise and don't believe in asking permission. Plus, organizing the march required huge amounts of money – and for what? Marchers weren't confronting or trying to stop a specific threat. Might those resources – not to mention the power of so many voices – be better spent on the frontlines, in places like Utah, where the tar sands industry is poised to gain a domestic foothold? 

The Utah protesters – most of them affiliated with Utah Tar Sands Resistance, a group specifically trained on stopping local mines, or with Peaceful Uprising, the environmental and social justice group formed after Tim DeChristopher's disobedient purchase of oil and gas leases –  more enthusiastically anticipated Flood Wall Street. That was the much smaller, unpermitted, more radical and politically aggressive sit-in that followed the People's Climate March in New York, and was described by one participant as a "family reunion" for the Occupy movement. Its slogan: "Stop capitalism. End the climate crisis."

That gets at a defining feature of this faction of the climate movement: It is made up of people who consider themselves social and economic justice activists as much as environmentalists. Many of them were galvanized around climate issues by the Occupy movement, or by DeChristopher's creative and infamous act of disobedience. They speak less of climate change, and more of climate justice, which the group Peaceful Uprising defines as "the intersections of environmental degradation and the racial, social, and economic inequities it perpetuates." They are Earth First! for the global warming era, with a social justice twist. 

When the Utah marchers arrived at the test pit, about half of them scrambled through an opening in the fence, past "no trespassing" signs, and into a hole in the ground that exposed the black, crude-laced rock and supported a small pond of rainwater, tinged brown. They stood beside the pond with their banners and posed for pictures. The clown climbed atop a pile of excavated tar sands rock and thrust his hands and a cardboard "No Tar Sands" sign into the air. The cops didn't show.

There was scarcely anyone out here to witness the protest, but one organizer had assured that it didn't matter; she could find them an audience online after the fact. The message that would accompany the pictures, the group had decided that morning around a campfire, would be directed at all the folks in New York: Come here next year, to the source. Get rowdier with us. 

Cally Carswell is a High Country News contributing editor, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.