My Birthday Gift to You

In dominant culture, today is the day you say to me, “Happy Birthday!” Often this is accompanied by the gift of some trinket made of plastic, purchased with debt, and transported by oil. But if you know anything about me it is likely this: what I want is a culture that turns that paradigm on its head: a culture that thrives through a gift, or sharing, economy; and not one dependent upon oil, debt, genocide, and slavery. I crave a society where the occasion of my celebrating the day of my birth into this physical realm illuminates my desire to give myself to our world, a desire that I manifest by gifting others. Today I honor my desire by presenting you this gift: insight into one of the myriad ways that we are constantly being manipulated.
Like you, I long for an effective path to transformation, both personal and cultural. I find as I research, however, that even in our resistance and our activism, we are being led down the path chosen by the powerful. Today I will point to just the surface of this issue using the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL) as my example.
Some commentators have recently opened the discussion about the efficacy of nonprofit organizations. Chief complaints about this structure include the fact that many exist as the philanthropic arm of a capitalist body; in other words, as an entity meant to allow profit makers to appear to make amends for the misery their greed and manipulation cause with every passing day while still turning an ever-growing profit. Another big reason that nonprofits are a mask that hides corporate greed is the typical manner in which they are governed: that is to say, in return for large amounts of funding, for profit entities usually take a seat on the Board of Directors of any entity they fund. This limits the scope or depth of change that the nonprofit will ever manage to achieve, by restricting its actions to those that cannot hope to harm the interests of its masters. There are more, but this is intended to be a short post, and so I move on to my example of KXL.
It is extremely important to look into the history, the genesis, of this major opponent of the pipeline. If you are unfamiliar with KXL, let me briefly say that it is a pipeline meant to transport Canadian tar sands across the American Midwest to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast. There this bitumen, a poor relative of the oil we refine for use in our country, will be refined into a product that can be used in crude engines in other countries such as China. Note that there are already hundreds of functioning pipelines in the U.S.; the KXL is hardly noteworthy as it is not the first by far. The northern leg of KXL, extending from Canada halfway across our country, was already complete before the controversy began: the *XL* in its name stands for *eXtension Line* after all. And today, despite the efforts of many nonprofits and even activists who have used active resistance: chaining themselves to heavy equipment, blocking roads, even tree sitting in the path of the bulldozers, the KXL is 95% complete. Most of the public await the President’s decision about allowing the pipe to be used with bated breath. One could ask, “Would he let it be built, at such large expense, if he did not intend to let it be used?” but we place such *hope* that Obama brings *change* that we blind ourselves to reality: his largest campaign donors stand to make billions from the further exploitation of oil. Why would he *change* that?
One of the main nonprofits that have campaigned against KXL is the group 350.org. Its founder and leading spokesperson is very well known, appreciated, and quoted: Bill McKibben. But this group is a red herring, a rat in the pantry, for many reasons. First, what do you know about the funding for this group? Tracing its history, it merged in 2007 with 1Sky, a nonprofit formed by the Clinton Global Initiative. It receives donations from the public, but over 60% of its budget since its inception has come from just six grants, whose donors’ identity is unverified by the organization itself. Tax returns show that the Rockefeller Foundation supports not only 350.org, but Middlebury College where McKibbon is on staff, with multi-million dollar grants. Second, Mr. McKibbon toured the country in the summer of 2013 trying to garner support to stop KXL. That tour was paid for by a hedge fund in Boston, which stood to gain if its investments in *green* technology  profit because the KXL is stopped. Full disclosure on the part of 350.org? Hardly. Third, as all of the environmental movement’s focus has been on stopping KXL, the companies that stand to profit from exploiting the tar sands have been quietly building up the railroad industry’s ability to transport tar sands as an alternative. They have already constructed loading and unloading facilities, built or purchased thousands of railway cars to move the sand and oil (and more coal, by the way), and ensured that no new regulations limiting their ability to transport tar sands across borders or through your town have been enacted. Note the recent increase in the number and severity of railway accidents involving oil and gas transport; is that a peek into what lies ahead for us? Thus KXL is merely a distraction, meant to keep our attention focused on the right hand while the left hand robs us of our future anyway.
This post has already grown longer than I like, yet there are many more aspects to this problem than I have mentioned here. I will work on a longer piece, just not on my birthday morning. It is clear to me, and I hope now you have more clarity too, that as long as we work within the parameters of what this dominant culture allows we will never succeed in making effective change. Donating to 350.org, attending rallies that focus on KXL to the exclusion of the myriad ways by which oil itself is the enemy, thinking that signing the online moveon.org petition is all we have to do to effect change; these are all problematic methods and in the final analysis, terribly and fatally insufficient.
And so my gift to you in honor of this anniversary of my birth: we are being effectively silenced when we think that support for a cause that appears to be a *good* act is in fact just furthering the desires of those who value profit over life. What does this tell us? Truth be told, it says what we know is true in our hearts yet can’t be brought into our conscious awareness without extreme discomfort: we must renounce oil and all its manifestations. If our goal is ending our dependence on oil, then let’s stop using oil. This is a hard truth, both in its severity and its disruptive potential. Yet anything less is *game over*, to paraphrase another well-known activist. And on my birthday, when I wish to be alive to gift you on many more anniversaries to come, this is especially distressing. I suppose, if you are stuck in the old paradigm and wish to give me something on my birthday, I would ask for this: tell me what you are willing to give up in order to reduce your dependence, your thirst, and your need, for oil.

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