Kai A Bosworth
Pipeline Populism: 21st century American environmentalism and the politics of land
In response to planetary environmental problems like climate change, acid rain, and deforestation, environmental politics has taken a particularly populist tone over the past thirty years. Whether it is in the context of a national election, an anti-racist social movement, or especially against corporate- and state-backed fossil fuel extraction that is accelerating climate change and its acute impacts on marginalized indigenous populations worldwide, widespread political organizing appears both necessary and unimaginable to many of us. Only, we argue, if everyone (and we’re talking everyone) were to come together and agree on the problem and political solutions could we have enough political power to transition to a post-fossil fuel future. This imaginary situation inflects our strategic choices, down to the discourses, scales of organizing, and alliances created in local and regional political movements. How do we make sure no one is alienated and everyone is included? How can we convince as many people as possible to join us? What will we do when we win?
These questions have been most pertinently raised by those movements resisting the continental oil pipeline buildout in North America, especially those working against the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota, Nebraska, Washington, D.C., and New York, and a series of other pipelines now proposed across the continent. The struggle against Keystone XL was for environmentalists on the one hand victorious. Although the southern half of the pipeline was built in 2011, enough visibility was raised that President Obama and the State Department rejected the permit for the more important northern leg of the pipeline. The nation was alerted to the ecological devastation being wrought in the Albertan tar sands. Since this victory, several other major pipelines have been stalled, and proposals for several future pipelines remain untenable. On the other hand, however, in rejecting the pipeline, no collective political subject was created, the force of the movement was largely dissipated, and fossil fuel extraction and consumption continued unabated. The Dakota Access pipeline struggle, now led most prominently by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, all the Oceti Šakowi?, and hundreds of indigenous tribes from across North America, is the limit condition for pipeline populism.
In this dissertation, I hypothesize that the an unreckoned-with populism pervades contemporary mainstream environmental movements around the world, preventing themselves and us from seeing the racialized class conditions at the heart of environmental destruction. The supposed need to ‘make everyone care’ about the environment writ either large or small has a depoliticizing edge, structuring the political field in such a way that antagonism is rendered unthinkable. Populism is both the cause and consequence of participatory political spaces, from sanctioned public participation meetings to marches, protests, and concerts. Populism’s ideological form is part of the reason ‘land’ became the operative signifier around which some anti-pipeline groups have structured their thought, activity, and desires. Land is able to successfully articulate a multiplicity of competing political desires – for property and wealth, for the nation, family, and race, for knowledge and science, and for health, well-being, and the good life. ?
Against other postfoundational theories of populism which offer primarily a linguistically- or discursively-based understanding of political space, I argue that historical and contemporary American formulations of land function to ground populism in a materialized political space and to articulate it with both the political and economic. Within post-Marxist theory, land has lost its specificity, in a sense dethroned from its previous seat among Marx’s ‘holy trinity’ with labor and money. It becomes just one signifier among others. But as Deleuze and Guattari show, land holds a very specific role in capitalism, for it links sovereign and economic power and allows political violence an oscillation between these two poles. By developing this theoretical stance, I offer a path out of the conflict between economic-centric (primarily Marxist political economy) and state-centric (primarily anarchistic) accounts in political ecology. This allows us to see that populist mobilization of land reinforces possessive individualism and hides uneven and ambivalent political and economic consequences for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, and Native American tribes. Understanding how environmental populism works to structure political spaces of anti-pipeline activism through a politics of land will contribute to a re-invention in our understanding of environmental politics and environmental justice adequate for the Anthropocene.
Last updated 06/27/2016