Last week, two massive non-Keystone XL Canadian pipeline projects passed important milestones that could soon enable the dangerous expansion of Alberta’s tar sands production. Does that mean Keystone XL opponents — over two million of whom submitted comments to the State Department this past month — are damned if they do manage to convince President Obama to block the pipeline, and damned if they don’t? Hardly.
The existence of more pipelines flowing out of Alberta’s tar sands is not evidence that the broad-based campaign against the Keystone XL was misguided to begin with, as many pundits have argued. For one thing, it has elevated the first cries of protest from people living along the pipeline route and exposed the ways in which the fossil fuel industry exploits those unfortunate enough to live on the front lines of its dirty practices. Secondly, despite the multitude of contingency plans the tar sands industry has in place should the Keystone XL not gain approval, none are as important as the Keystone XL itself. Recent reports have shown that many tar sands projects will not be economically viable without the Keystone XL.
More broadly speaking, however, should a campaign that took a little-known project on the fast track toward approval and made it a national issue of debate, delaying progress for nearly three years, really be considered a failure, or a waste of time and energy? At worst, the campaign against the Keystone XL has galvanized a national climate movement at an utterly critical moment — given these two other tar sands pipelines and the many other fossil fuel projects in progress around the United States and Canada.
Perhaps what’s needed to put the scope of the Keystone XL battle into perspective is a better understanding of failure. In fact, the environmental movement was built on failure — not just the failure of industrialized civilizations to take into account the limits of growth, but also the very environmental campaigns fighting against such arrogance. The first time the merits of civilization and growth were debated on a national level in this country, the outcome was a failure for those protecting the interests of nature.
It was December 1913, and wilderness advocates had fought a hard five-year battle to save the Hetch Hetch Valley — a wilderness preserve within California’s Yosemite National Park — from being turned into a reservoir for San Francisco’s growing water needs. Led by naturalist and author John Muir, the wilderness advocates managed to incite hundreds of newspapers to publish editorials in support of preservation and thousands of letters to Congress from women’s groups, outdoors and sporting clubs, scientific societies and university faculty. But, ultimately, it was not enough to save Hetch Hetchy. President Woodrow Wilson approved the legislation allowing for its damming, noting that the opponents’ “fears and objections were not well founded.”
While the decision was a crushing blow to wilderness advocates like Muir, who died a year later, he nevertheless took consolation in the fact that “the conscience of the whole country has been aroused from sleep.” Furthermore, as environmental historian Roderick Nash explains in his seminal book Wilderness and the American Mind, “the defenders of wilderness discovered their political muscles and how to flex them by arousing an expression of public opinion [that would not easily be forgotten]. In fact, immediately after the Hetch Hetchy defeat the fortunes of wilderness preservation took an abrupt turn for the better.” The National Park Service was established in 1916, which inspired continued national interest in preservation issues. And by the 1950s, wilderness advocates were able to successfully fend off a dam in Dinosaur National Monument, generating the necessary momentum for a national policy of wilderness preservation with the Wilderness Act of 1964.
All this is to say that failure is a complex term. Much like success, it is rarely complete. Within the failure of Hetch Hetchy were the seeds of success for other campaigns that ultimately grew into the modern environmental movement. If the campaign against the Keystone XL fails to stop the pipeline, it may still succeed at the far more necessary and long-term goals of building a powerful movement that spells the end of fossil fuels’ dominance. That, of course, is too soon to predict. But it means there’s time to continue building the conditions for such an eventuality. We must — in short — recognize, as Bob Dylan once said, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”
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I agree, Bryan. In Philadelphia Monday, there was a well-attended action against the Keystone XL Pipeline where 29 people were arrested for civil disobedience (30 when we count the 17-year-old who police released without charges). More were prepared to be arrested, and even more had gone through training and feel more empowered for courageous action going forward. For Earth Quaker Action Team, the primary organizers, it was a wonderful opportunity to both build alliances with other regional groups and to connect with area Quakers who have not gotten involved with our campaign to stop PNC Bank from financing mountaintop removal coal mining. The national media’s attention on Keystone helped turn out people who have not been involved before. Now it is our job to engage them in an ongoing way that builds the movement as a whole, and we are already making phone calls to do just that. While I certainly hope that we are successful in stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline, I’m clear that Monday’s action was a success regardless of what President Obama decides.
Thanks Eileen! I was excited to see the news and photos of your action the other day. The fact that awareness and participation on this issue continues to grow is the thing that is most needed for the longer ongoing struggle for climate justice.
I’m trying to wrap my mind around the Dylan quote. I can see how failure can be success, in the ways you describe and others. (Martyrdom of various sorts, for instance.) But I think there’s a nugget in the second part of the quote that you don’t really explicate, and which was at first puzzling, but which I think I have an idea about now.
Maybe the failure that is “no success at all” is a failure that perceive itself as failure, that accepts failure. When that’s the case, the momentary failure is the end. Turning failure into success, I think, requires a horizon of vision that can look beyond the failure toward success, that has success in view. When one is simply working toward expected failure, as many radicals often seem to do, failure is probably what they’ll get. No success at all there. But a failure that doesn’t perceive itself as such is different.
Thanks for fleshing that out, Nathan. You’re right: I could have done a bit more of that myself. But I think you interpreted the line the same way I have always interpreted it. Of course, knowing Dylan it’s hard to say if he intended that deeper meaning to the line or if he was just being the clever contrarian he’s known to be. Regardless, once you wrap your mind around it, there does seem to be a logic to what he’s saying, which is that you can’t stop short at failure. If you do, if you accept failure, then you’ve really failed. But if you keep moving forward and try to learn and build upon your failure, well, then there’s no success quite like it. In fact, it’s a far more meaningful and harder earned success than the kind you might have gained by winning all at once, right away.