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Standing Rock and Shaky Ground: Fueling Culture and Politics in the Years Ahead

18th January 2017

By Imre Szeman and Jennifer Wenzel

2016 was a year that won’t be soon forgotten, no matter how much one would like. In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, many progressives have been left wondering about that classic mantra—”The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—which prods the defeated to see their dreams as deferred rather than dashed forever. Although Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t invent those words, his citation of them in the early 1960s feels poignant and apt at a moment when the promise to “Make America Great Again” threatens to roll back even the limited and partial realization of King’s dream. Many demographic trends indicate that the future of the United States looks like Obama’s America—an increasingly diverse society working toward a more perfect union. This vision of the future would cast Trump and his plutocratic cabinet as the last stand of patriarchal white supremacy, at least in an unapologetic, grabby mode. But with the levers of state power at its command, a Trump administration has numerous ways to hold demography at bay— mass deportations and voter suppression tactics only the most obvious among them.

As has become increasingly clear since the election, Trump’s victory also means a victory for Big Oil and the world that it has made. “Making America Great Again” also means keeping it powered by oil, gas and coal. Signs of Big Oil’s victory are everywhere. The Environmental Protection Agency is to be headed by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who not only denies human-caused global warming but has also refused to take action to address his state’s new earthquake problem, which the Oklahoma Geological Survey (as well as federal agencies) has linked to fracking. Exxon Mobil CEO and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson is even closer to Vladimir Putin than the President-Elect—a relationship forged in their shared goal to open up the Arctic for oil extraction. TransCanada, the company responsible for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, has expressed confidence that the Trump administration, reversing Obama’s permit denial, will green-light the completion of its massive project to transport diluted bitumen from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. And on this issue at least, it isn’t just about fatcats and oligarchs: the per capita carbon emissions of each state were strongly correlated with voting for Trump. At a moment when much of the world is ready to take up the challenge of global warming, the US will have a fossil fuel presidency.

But it’s not only in Oklahoma that a fossil-fueled future is on shaky ground. Even with oil prices near record lows, renewables offer an increasingly viable alternative: Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that solar energy is now the cheapest way to produce electricity. The shale revolution has opened up previously inaccessible deposits of oil and gas, deflecting concerns about peak oil and the Hubbert curve, but also raising concerns about the insatiable thirst of hydraulic fracturing, which not only uses up massive amounts of water for fracking fluid but also risks contaminating nearby groundwater. Even with the redrawing of the peak oil curve, and post-election uncertainty about where the arc of the moral universe is heading, an energy regime based on dirty hydrocarbons nonetheless runs up against other foreboding lines—the twin graphs that chart average global temperatures and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. These graphs have been described as a “hockey-stick”: relative flatness amid fluctuation gives way to a sudden, sharp, and as—yet unending upward spike in the mid-20th century. The Trump era may also be fossil fuels’ last stand.

2016 should also be remembered for powerful counter-images of solidarity at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the site of successful protest against the re-routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline away from Bismarck and through treaty-defined territory instead. The Standing Rock Sioux were joined by Native Americans from across the United States, indigenous peoples from elsewhere in the Americas and around the world, non-indigenous climate justice activists, and a contingent of U.S. military veterans offering themselves up as human shields against violence mounted by state and private security forces on behalf of the corporation Energy Transfer Partners. Calling themselves “water protectors,” and putting their bodies, songs, and prayers on the line in the face of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons that coated them in ice, the protesters at Standing Rock have stood firm in demonstrating how the single-minded pursuit of oil and profits puts so much else at risk, including clean water, the sacred burial grounds of ancestors, and whatever progress the United States has made toward rejecting its shameful history vis-à-vis Native Americans.

If the environmental harm associated with fracking represents a doubling-down on fossil fuels regardless of what we now know about their true costs, then the forceful re-routing of DAPL through Indian country (in the name of mitigating environmental impact outside the reservation) is a shockingly unrepentant reprise of a history of legalized land theft, desecration, and environmental racism. To be sure, the victories against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines are tenuous—likely to be reversed under Trump (a shareholder in Energy Transfer Partners). Yet they stand as victories for now, and they will continue to stand as evidence of what people can do when they join together to say no to the unevenly distributed costs and benefits of petromodernity. Standing Rock reveals the ways that Big Oil and the socioeconomic relations that follow from it are on shaky ground.
Our new book, Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment, traces the relationship between cultural imagining and social change in a similar fashion. It offers a lexicon of keywords on the intersections of energy, culture, and politics—ranging from Addiction, Arctic, and Automobile to Whaling, Wood, and Work. These brief essays not only make clear the real scope of the environmental crises we face; they also marshal resources to meet these challenges creatively, critically, and with an eye toward justice. The task ahead of us isn’t so much to find new sources of energy, hoping against hope that scientists will invent a non-polluting energy source that can be used indiscriminately by everyone on the planet. Rather, it’s to recognize that who and what we are has been shaped in myriad ways by the energy we use and how we use it. The first step toward re-imagining our cultural and social practices is to recognize how fundamentally they’ve been undergirded by access (or lack of access) to cheap and easy energy—a foundation that has become increasingly unstable: shaky ground. By offering a new vocabulary for thinking about these questions, Fueling Culture aims to help activate a new sensibility about energy and its significance as the bedrock of culture and society—a struggle that is as important for our environmental futures as it is for the political decisions that shape our lives today.