Detailing how people everywhere can make progress against the drastic environmental problems that we currently face, The Green Boat (Riverhead Books, 2013) offers the simple solution of taking small, positive and humane steps forward. Author Mary Pipher, Ph.D.—a psychologist and author of eight books—experienced a “trauma to transcendence cycle” when she learned that the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline was proposed to run through her native Nebraska Sandhills. In this excerpt from “Finding Shipmates,” Pipher meets with other potential activists to discuss their environmental concerns.
The intensity of my emotions around the planned TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline required me, a reluctant activist, to become more involved. I invited my friend Brad, a soft-spoken organic gardener, and my friend Marian, from nearby Spring Creek Prairie, to my house to discuss what we could do to stop Trans-Canada from shipping tar sands sludge through our state.
We met over soup and artisan sourdough. I wanted the event to be more like a party than a meeting. I assumed that my friends were like me—too busy already and tired at the end of a workday. They would only return if they were relaxed and having fun.
We shared what little we knew about the pipeline and talked about people in our community who might be interested in joining our cause. We agreed that for our next meeting, in a week, we would invite anyone we knew who might want to jump on board.
Eight people came to that next meeting. Mitch was a young, clean-cut guy from the mayor’s office. Jane, director of a political nonprofit called Bold Nebraska, had driven in from Hastings, leaving her two daughters, Kora and Maya, at home with her husband. She was a commanding, articulate woman dressed in a stylish outfit and cowboy boots. Malinda, her Lincoln assistant, arrived with yard signs and bumper stickers that said “Stop the XL Pipeline.” Like all the young people that eventually joined our coalition, Malinda had plenty of enthusiasm and gumption.
Ken, a tall, skinny, tired-looking lobbyist for the Nebraska Sierra Club; Duane, the director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation; and Tim, the director of Nebraskans for Peace, came, too. Tim had helped organize 350.org of Omaha and was working with our power districts on ways to increase the amount of clean energy we have in our state.
After introducing ourselves to each other, we began to compare notes. Jane had been talking in the kitchens of ranchers and farmers along the proposed route. She told us that TransCanada had been bullying them into selling easements. One rancher told her that the land in the Sandhills could not recover from the digging of an oil pipeline. His grandfather had plowed a furrow to stop a prairie fire a hundred years ago. Since then, every generation of his family had tried unsuccessfully to restore the land.
“The pipeline is going to destroy vital habitats,” said Marian. “I’m really worried about the sandhill and whooping cranes.”
Ken and Duane told us how TransCanada was working with state officials, lobbyists, the press, and public relations people to give support for the pipeline. Ken said, “I’ve never seen money washing around the halls of the capitol the way I have this year.”
At this point in the discussion, we were all feeling a bit overwhelmed. To paraphrase my granddaughter Kate, we were starting to know too much.
Despite the fact that several of us were looking at our feet and could no longer speak, Tim jumped in with more bad news. He made the connection between tar sands development and rising CO2 levels, between our local struggles and a much larger climate catastrophe.
TransCanada had assured Nebraskans that the Keystone XL pipeline would be safe. But none of us was born yesterday. Ken recalled that in the 1980s, just before Chernobyl exploded and spewed nuclear materials around the globe, the Soviets had reported that it would be safe for at least a thousand years.
We talked for a couple of hours. We were like mosquitoes in a nudist camp—we knew what we had to do; we just weren’t sure where to begin. Fortunately, with so much work, we could choose any area that interested us and plunge in. We could hardly plan fast enough.
We had all come into the meeting feeling isolated, hopeless, and disempowered. But despite the grim content of our discussion, as the night went on, we became increasingly hopeful. This seems counterintuitive, but I think I know why it happened. That night, we weren’t just complaining and bemoaning our situation, we were planning ways to understand and prepare for the coming storm. And we had shipmates.
All of us were progressives who had worked for lost causes all of our lives. None of us ever seemed to vote for a candidate who won. We didn’t think we’d win this battle, either. We had no money, organization, or public support. But we were not just going to lie down and surrender.
We agreed to meet again in two weeks. Most of us were foodies, so we liked the idea of biweekly potlucks with wine. No fast food, pizzas, or sandwiches for us. We decided to avoid office buildings, too. We’d meet outside for picnics or in members’ homes.
We called ourselves a coalition and vowed that every meeting we would plan actions. That night, we decided that our first action would be a rally in January 2011 on the steps of our state capitol in Lincoln.
We hugged each other good-bye under the stars. Afterward, while rinsing the dishes clean, I realized I was humming. That was something I hadn’t done in a long time.
From The Green Boat by Mary Pipher. Copyright 2013 by Mary Pipher. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books.