How Environmental Racism, Oil Dependence, and NIMBYism Created DAPL

Note: This story appeared on February 1, 2017 on my blog.

Back in December, President Obama called a halt to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by denying an easement to build part of the pipeline underneath Lake Oahe. Better known as DAPL, the pipeline would begin in Stanley, North Dakota and traverse over one thousand miles in three other states before terminating in Patoka, Illinois, an oil hub for other pipelines.

Members of the Sioux Nation as well as other Native American groups vigorously opposed the pipeline. Citing fears that an oil spill would pollute their drinking water, protesters converged on Standing Rock this summer.

The protesters’ victory was shortlived. Trump started the project back up again on January 24th. So the activists — who call themselves “water protectors” — went back to the Standing Rock reservation. A few days ago, Obama’s elder daughter, Malia, joined the renewed protest.

While I am confident that the Standing Rock protest will eventually prove successful, the sad fact of the matter is that there will be other Standing Rocks to protest. Given Trump’s lack of sensitivity to poor people of color, his greed, his allegiance to Big Oil, his intensifying war with the press, and his fetishization of militarized “law and order”, those other Standing Rocks will not be as well publicized or (gulp) not as successful as the Standing Rock protest.

While Trump will be largely to blame for the failure of successive environmental protests, potential environmental disasters like DAPL didn’t occur in a vacuum. Environmental racism, the practice of forcing poor people, usually people of color, to live in close proximity to toxic waste facilities, pollution, or urban decay, has been the American way for decades.

NIMBYism only compounds environmental racism as communities with more wealth and organized political structures can successfully block the construction of nuclear waste handling facilities and businesses that produce pollution in their vicinities. Throw in oil dependence and a stubborn refusal to convert to renewal energy sources, and you have another Standing Rock ready to happen.

It isn’t enough to donate money to the protesters at Standing Rock. For that matter, speaking out on the issue, contacting your Congressperson, or even joining the protest itself, while effective in the short term, will not solve the underlying problems that spawned DAPL.

America must wean itself from its dependence on oil. That is, we must commit to walking short distances instead of driving. That means we must use public transportation whenever possible. That means we must start buying (less flashy) electric cars or at the very least gas powered cars with good gas mileage.

That means we need to convert to clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar if possible. That means we must invest in alternative energy companies. That means committing to reusing and recycling whenever possible. That means not wasting resources like electricity and water.

That means we must commit to long-term grassroots organizing. Don’t know your elected representatives’ voting record on environmental issues? Now’s the time to find out. That also means making the commitment to actually vote in local and state level races. It’s okay to watch Trump and his billionaire goon squad with hawk-eyes but most of the environmental decisions that directly affect you and your community are made by city councils, town commissioners, mayors, and governors.

Too many anti-environment politicians sail into office knowing full well that their poor/minority constituents will not challenge plans to pollute their air and water. Knowing that angry constituents will hold them accountable at the voting booth would give these anti-environment political officials pause.

Most importantly, people of color need to rethink their stance on the environment. I personally know entirely too many people of color who frame environmental protection as a “white issue”. The last I heard, people of color could get just as sick as white people from drinking dirty water and breathing dirty air. And, due to other historic inequalities, people of color suffer more negative outcomes from pollution-induced illnesses and get significantly less redress when we finally complain. We only hurt ourselves (and our children) when we pretend that caring for the Earth is the sole responsibility of white people.

So show your solidarity with the protesters of Standing Rock but never forget that this is the beginning of the fight and not the end.