Not in My Backyard, Not on My Planet

by Bruce Johansen

A friend, Professor Henry D'Souza (who is well-known around Nebraskans for Peace), told me that he had watched parts of the Unicameral hearings on the Keystone XL Pipeline. He remarked at how limited the focus of the hearings seemed to be, as if we are dealing mainly with a routing issue for the pipeline, not the larger issue, the introduction of a whole new (and very large) pool of fossil fuels, by way of Alberta’s tar sands.

While I agreed with Henry, of course, I said that the very nature of the inquiry limited it to a very large case of 'not in my (our) backyard.' The Statehouse deals with issues within the borders of Nebraska. Most of our influential politicians (Governor Dave Heineman and Senator Mike Johanns among them), have said that they favor the pipeline, but oppose routing it through the Sand Hills.

With all respect due the Sand Hills, however, routing is only a small part of the real issue. How many people are concerned with the fact that the oil-industrial complex is bringing on-line all sorts of new product at a time when the carbon-dioxide level in our shared atmosphere is reaching the levels of the Pliocene, 2 to 3 million years ago, when the Earth’s temperatures were perhaps 4 to 5 degrees F. higher, with very little glacial ice and sea levels about 200 feet higher than today? The lag effect of 'thermal inertia' (the time it takes for carbon dioxide to mature into a greenhouse gas -- 50 years in the atmosphere, about 150 to 200 years in the oceans) will temporarily shield us, but every pump of the gas pedal today is setting up a hellish Pliocene-like future.

Deck Chairs on the Titanic

As important at the Sand Hills may be, they are only part of the issue. The real issue is human dependence on fossil fuels -- and the evil genius of the oil and coal industry to keep supplying us with enough new carbon fuel sources from many different (safe! secure! profitable!) places to fry the atmosphere.

While I am encouraged when some of our politicians take exception to the oil-industrial complex (this kind of independent thinking is a rare sight), in the big picture, our state’s politicians are merely re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. As the Alberta oil sands are being developed, oil companies are positively drooling over fossil-fuel deposits under the Arctic Ocean that used to be restricted by year-round ice.

Now that the ice cap is melting, we see hot times in the Northeast and Northwest passages, perversely hailed as a maritime merchant’s dream. They’re growing cabbage in Greenland – hooray! Oh, the ironies of global warming. Melt the ice, and open access to more fossil fuels that will contribute to acceleration of the problem. ExxonMobil has signed a deal to drill in the Russian sector of the Arctic Ocean.

“It is paradoxical that new opportunities are opening for our nations at the same time we understand that the threat of carbon emissions have become imminent,” Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, said at a recent conference on Arctic Ocean shipping (he was quoted in the New York Times by Andrew E. Kramer, October 18, 2011). Alaska’s lieutenant governor, Mead Treadwell, was quoted by Kramer as saying that about $1 billion worth of goods passed through the Bering Strait last year. “The ships,” he said, “are coming.”

In addition to the Arctic’s new oil, as well as the whole new system of fossil-fuel supply from Canadian tar sands, new fossil fuels are coming out of Montana and North Dakota from 'fracking.' North Dakota is experiencing an economic boom in an otherwise dour economic climate as it produces 400,000 barrels of oil a day. Colombia is becoming a major player on the world oil market, and ExxonMobil has found a large new oil field in Argentina. 

New Oil, Old Problem

We are being told that all these new sources of oil and other fossil fuels are good for us. They reduce our dependence on oil from the unstable, terrorist-ridden Middle East. No matter where our oil products come from, however, we are still slaves to fossil fuels, as the atmosphere’s carbon-dioxide level ticks upward year by year. This piper will be paid by coming generations. Was it Karl Marx who said a capitalist will sell you the rope with which to hang yourself?

We will have enough oil to power our SUVs until well past the time when coastal cities begin to become inundated by rising sea levels. With every press of the gas pedal we are levying a cost on future generations.

Last summer, during July. We had a little foretaste of this. A month of nighttime temperatures above 80 degrees F. caused most of our garden to quit producing vegetables, including the tomatoes, which usually savor warm nights. Even tomatoes have limits, and for a time we reached them.

This is a taste of a future when the basics of every-day life will become hostage to a warming climate. Because of thermal inertia, this is becoming not a question of if, but when. At the same time, our government and industries act as if bringing new sources of fossil fuels to market without limit is a good thing. This state of affairs is not sustainable for more than a few more decades. Eventually, without sustainable non-polluting energy, life will become more difficult, no matter where the Keystone XL Pipeline is routed.


Kramer, Andrew E. “Warming Revives Dream of Sea Route in Russian Arctic.” New York Times, October 18, 2011.


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