Keystone XL: History Up Close
November 7, 2015
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”
As we all know, history only makes sense in retrospect (and even then is distorted by the cognitive biases and limited information available to those looking back). Events lead to events in a narrative chronology that can appear inexorable when viewed through the rearview mirror. But, in reality, the shaping of history is chaordic: the mixing together of systemic inertia and random events—both things that must be and those shouldn’t be at all—that resembles the ad hoc cooking of a peasant stew much more than the routine assembly of a fast food burger.
On occasion, however, there are singular moments that immediately stand out as history defining. It’s easy to name a number of these from the last few decades—the assassination of JFK, the fall of the Berlin Wall, September 11th—when most people had the thought, upon hearing the news, along the lines of “this changes everything.”
And then there are those moments that could go either way. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which for decades was cited in history textbooks as the cause of World War I, is often now seen merely as an easily substitutable trigger. A conflict of European powers was widely understood at the time to be inevitable and so, if the Archduke hadn’t been killed by Serbian separatists, something else would have served as the trigger. But we’ll never know if that’s true. In either case, what matters is not so much the actual event but the perception of its importance—not when looking back at it in retrospect but in the moment itself.
Why bring all this up now? Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but is it possible that the news of Exxon’s climate cover-up and today’s rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline by President Obama (just weeks before over 190 countries meet in Paris to hopefully ink a landmark climate agreement) are feeding a collective sense of inevitability? After nearly 30 years of inaction, will 2015 be seen as the year that the “war on climate change” started in earnest?
I’m a cynic by nature, so I find it all too easy to dismiss these incidences as too little, too late or momentary flashes of sun in the mother of all storms. After all, the rejection of Keystone XL, after a half-decade of political debate and disproportionate attention from environmental groups, comes in the wake of the equivalent of 10 Keystones having been built since 2010 and in the opportune low price phase of the energy-economy trap.
Not to mention the reality that a climate agreement based on current INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) puts us on a path towards 3.5° Celsius warming, a far cry from the 2° ceiling agreed upon in the Copenhagen Accord.
Would the rejection of the pipeline have happened if the winds hadn’t blown in our favor? And, if not, what does that say about the inevitability of this moment? And is it equally inevitable that climate progress is reversed when we next experience a global recession, when new political leaders are elected, or when the disruptions of the energy transition are more widely felt?
Here I’m going to channel my inner optimist (after all, what’s a cynic but a defensive optimist?) and sports fan. It may well be that the timing and circumstances were auspicious for Obama’s decision today to reject Keystone XL, but it was the vocal and steadfast opposition from frontline communities and the environmental movement that kept the game alive for this long, when four years ago approval seemed a foregone conclusion. It’s fair to debate whether the focus of time and dollars on this one specific project was worth the investment but I don’t think it’s fair to say that organized opposition didn’t change the game. It did.
And whether the climate movement should legitimately take credit for this victory is almost irrelevant: Obama’s decision—coupled with other “wins” like the huge drop in solar prices, turnout at last year’s Peoples Climate March, and the bald proof that the world’s largest publicly traded energy company valued its profits over the survival of our species—creates the perception that momentum is finally on our side. Ask any athlete or diehard sports fan about momentum: they can’t tell you exactly what it is but will insist that it’s real and that you’ll know it when you see it.
Perhaps moments, and history itself, are sometimes inevitable simply because we believe them to be.
Now please excuse me as I step away from my computer and attempt to convince myself it’s inevitable that the climate movement (and through it, the world) recognizes the only way to ensure ultimate victory is by getting at the heart of the problem: our growth- and consumption-based way of life.
feature image collage courtesy of Shutterstock.com: Pixeljoy; kojihirano; and Rena Schild.