New Book – Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the 21st Century

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Kai Bosworth, Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, May 2022).

Cover of Pipeline Populism by Kai Bosworth

A lively genre of environmental politics has grown in the last decade across the US and Canada: a populist environmentalism. Eschewing the technocratic and policy-oriented depoliticizations of the Big Greens of the 1990s and early 2000s, populist environmentalism instead envisions a mass mobilization by “the people” to reclaim democracy from corrupt politicians and environmental NGOs, fossil fuel corporations, and sometimes-imagined foreign outsiders. Espoused by thought-leaders like Naomi Klein and picked up by the Sunrise Movement, populist environmentalism promised to unite otherwise fractured and diverse constituencies such as Native Nations, settler farmers and ranchers, and environmentalists into unlikely alliances in pursuit of broad social transformation. My book, Pipeline Populism, accounts for the potential of such a form of political struggle, while also describing how populism at times served as a limit to imagining the horizons of climate justice.

Pipeline Populism is primarily concerned with understanding opposition to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines in the upper US Midwest from the period of 2010 to 2016. As a geographer and political ecologist, I am interested in understanding how the populist portion of pipeline opposition emerged as a new political “common sense” while interfacing with other sorts of environmental tendencies as well as the state.

“As a geographer and political ecologist, I am interested in understanding how the populist portion of pipeline opposition emerged as a new political “common sense” while interfacing with other sorts of environmental tendencies as well as the state.”

Of particular interest to readers of this blog is the chapter “Canadian Invasion for Chinese Consumption: Foreign Oil and Heartland Melodrama,” where I address the shifting perceptions of US pipeline opponents on the oil-drenched politics of Canada. Attempts to brand the Canadian tar sands as “ethical oil” in contrast to the supposedly “unethical” alternatives of the Middle East are well documented by Canadian scholars. Indeed, the long-standing importance of “foreign oil” to US identity seems to have had an exception with regards to Canada, which has much to do with a perceived shared identity among predominantly European-descendent settlers of these two countries. Yet this chapter examines how the frame of nefarious “foreign oil” was flexible enough that pipeline opponents began to use it to describe the Canadian state as captured by TransCanada and the (supposedly Chinese) interests of oil firms operating in the tar sands.

From the perspective of some US commenters, such a novel anti-Canadian sentiment sought to show that Keystone XL was not in the United States’ “national interest,” an important determination in the permitting process. But in doing so, I show that US pipeline opponents sought to displace responsibility onto foreign outsiders, including for the settler colonial basis of oil extraction. Public commentary on the 2013 Environmental Impact Statement sought to blame Canada and China for despoiling the US natural environment and farming economy, seeking a cause in economic globalization and geopolitical competition:

“I feel as tho my own country is being exploited to the max by outsiders. Hauling Canadian (shame on them for what they are destroying) oil on trains thru my country to sell to foreigners is even worse than building a pipeline to carry the junk. Let the Canadians do their own dirty laundry in their own destroyed land. Send all our greedy capitalists to China and Russia for further exploitation.”

Commenters frequently pointed out that the tar sands would harm First Nations in Canada, with little mention of Native American Nations in the US, or the country’s history of or continued employment of settler colonialism and global imperialism. This rhetorical move had the effect of absolving or rendering invisible the role of US agriculture or refineries, for example, in benefiting from the partnership with Canada. Such a position is exemplified by a television advertisement funded by billionaire Tom Steyer in 2013 during President Obama’s State of the Union address portraying Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as a new anti-US alliance.

Still from TV ad by billionaire Tom Steyer that insinuates an anti-US relationship between Canada and China

I describe this narrative as a “heartland melodrama,” a simplistic form of vilification of outsiders for the wounds of a heroic US subject. Heartland melodrama contributed to a renewed sense of “the people” as injured by foreign oil—in particular, by Canada! Such an emotional script is limited in its ability to analyze and take responsibility for the intertwined settler colonial and imperial histories of North American firms and nation states.

“Heartland melodrama contributed to a renewed sense of “the people” as injured by foreign oil.”

Other chapters of the book examine the ambivalent but at times more hopeful forms which populist pipeline opposition took, whether in public participation in environmental review, in contesting expertise, or in unveiling a more contested politics of land and private property in the context of Indigenous sovereignty. Nonetheless, I ultimately conclude that populist environmentalism is limited by its imagination of what it takes to build a mass popular mobilization—including a renewal of US civic nationalism.

Feature Image: “Draw the Line National Day of Action Against the Keystone XL 9/2013” by Overpass Light Brigade is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.
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Kai Bosworth

Kai Bosworth is assistant professor of international studies in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Kai is the author of Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the 21st Century, out May 2022 from the University of Minnesota Press.

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