There’s no success like failure, when it comes to movement building

    As a decision on the Keystone XL looms, it may prove helpful to understand that initial failure often contains the seeds for longterm success.
    Keystone XL protesters outside the White House in August 2011. (Flickr/ Josh Lopez)
    Keystone XL protesters outside the White House in August 2011. (Flickr/ Josh Lopez)

    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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