Protestors gathered around the world on Tuesday to protest construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, which the company Energy Transfer Partners plans will carry “light, sweet crude oil” from the Bakken field in North Dakota to Illinois (). The $ 3.8 billion project would cut across sites sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, farmland, and the Missouri river. So it comes as no surprise that the controversy has cut through questions of tribal sovereignty and solidarity, job security, climate change, and the movement from fossil fuels. People camped out to show their opposition to the pipeline with reasons as spread out as the dissenters themselves.
Here at the University of Wyoming, the protests barely made a splash. I know two students who carried cardboard signs around, and only one person asked them what they meant by #NoDAPL. When a local reporter remarked that ours was the only state in the West not hosting demonstrations, it never occurred to me to change that. We have passionate people at UW, and we hold marches from time to time, but protest is not a part of the culture of our campus. When I think about how it feels to live in Wyoming, I understand why our dissent fizzles as soon as it sparks. I am about to project all over my home state, but I think there is a lot of insecurity in the way people here sit on the fence. In this state, we believe in living and letting be, but despite our history of firsts, we aren’t warm to people who push for change. Pushiness violates the moderation we hold sacred. Even when the dominant belief is one that would be radical in another state, we dress it up as moderate.
From what I have noticed, I think people here are hesitant to delegitimize the lives of those with whom we live and work so closely. Nor do we want to be seen as unreasonable, another batch of what Al Simpson called “pointy-headed hippies”, stepping on our heroes’ toes. I am starting to wonder how much of Wyoming’s reluctance with activism comes from a respect for independence, a devotion to reason, and how much of it is fear of making a stink. Holding up a sign and a hashtag feels like dressing for the Kentucky Derby and ending up at the Cowboy saloon, demanding that everyone trades their beer for a mint julep. It seems rude to share an opinion without the scripted sandwich of ignorance, starting with “Well, I don’t know much about it, but…” and ending, “it’s just so complicated.”
I use these disclaimers in most conversations about the energy industry in Wyoming, because it is just-so-complicated. I hate that people are losing their jobs, that towns are deflating, that the state’s school districts are strapped for cash. I don’t think coal is dying because it is evil any more than I chalk it up to the heathen powers of our Democratic president. I know we could all gain a lot by talking through these beliefs, cultivating empathy. But empathy and activism are not mutually exclusive, and I worry about how we limit ourselves by being afraid to raise a ruckus. On the flip side, I am excited about what we can accomplish if we stop ignoring frustration and harness it as fuel for change. We can only arrive at true moderation by challenging each other.
I went to a meeting for the Laramie chapter of Citizen’s Climate Lobby this week to learn about the Carbon Fee and Dividend that CCL is trying to push through Congress. The people there were realistic about how taxing carbon could escalate economic problems in our state. They saw those as a reason our legislators could probably never support the bill, but not a reason to give up. Instead, the trade-off between jobs and responsibility to reduce emissions is an opportunity to transform a system that is not working anyway. Unless the world decides to be fatalistic about climate change, Wyoming is going to have to jump on the transition from fossil fuels. Even then, the bust that is happening now is real and irreversible, and who knows where the energy industry will go from here. Confronting the problems of rising unemployment and environmental degradation together is the only way to give our state a future. In order to do that, we are going to have to get more comfortable pushing for change.
The Sustainability Coalition also had a meeting this week, and it was our first. We had representatives from the Wildlife Society, ACRES Student Farm, Sustainability Club, ASUW, Partners of the Americas, Multicultural Association of Student Scientists, and the Sustainability Committee. There is energy for action on this campus. Students want to take on a positive role in the challenges facing our state, our countries, and our world. As a University, I hope that we can show each other the respect of disagreement, and work together in ways we never would have expected. Let’s be a model for Wyoming. I don’t want to alienate people. I want to be effective. And yet I don’t want us to be paralyzed because it is hard to show dissent.