After months of protesting the Dakota Access pipeline near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters have finally broken into mainstream American awareness. Their plight has garnered news coverage in widely read media, from a FAQ in Popular Science to editorials in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and beyond. By November 1st, more than 1.5 million Facebook users “checked in” at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation (roughly 50 miles from the protest camp) in a campaign of dubious origin intended to confound and confuse the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, who were said to be monitoring social media to figure out who to arrest at the protest. The report turned out to be a false internet rumor, but Standing Rock representatives said they didn’t mind the increased exposure to a potentially sympathetic public.
Although the check-in campaign inspired many an armchair activist to throw their virtual lot in with the pipeline protesters, it failed to generate any substantial material support for the people on the ground doing the hard work of securing Native rights and guarding the integrity of the Missouri river, the only source of water for the tribe and an important water source for a vast swath of the country. Awareness and five bucks will get you a cup of fancy coffee, though, and if they are going to succeed, the water defenders facing rubber bullets, vicious dogs, tear gas, and arrest at the DAPL protest are going to need a lot more than that. They’re facing a more implacable enemy than just the oil company and the police state: their enemy is us.
It’s true! According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “the United States consumed a total of 7.08 billion barrels of petroleum products, an average of about 19.4 million barrels per day” in 2015. Because our modern civilization is based on having a practically unlimited supply of cheap oil, we couldn’t continue modern life as we know it without access to this commodity. It’s easy to claim that we could just switch over to renewables such as wind and solar, but oil gives us more than electricity and motor fuel. It’s also plastic, it’s how we grow our food, and it’s even how we go about building the wind turbines and solar panels that advocates for alternative energy claim will power our future. Every time we declare that “we can’t go backwards – do you expect us to live in the caves again?” we are voting for more oil, for another pipeline.
Visitors to the homepage of the Sacred Stone Camp, where the protest is being held, are given three options for how to assist in the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline. Perhaps the most effective choice would be a donation to their legal defense fund; maybe they can be determined gadflies for long enough to gum up the process and result in yet another change of course for the pipeline, although the result is still likely to be leaks and more leaks wherever the pipe is laid. To join the camp and protest directly, visitors are asked to fill out a form with some information, such as if you’re willing and able to risk arrest, and if you have a vehicle. See, one must even gas up to go to a protest against the pipeline that brings the oil to the refineries where gasoline is made. When oil companies are that secure in their ability to sell their product even in the face of extended protests, your scorn means little to them as they count your monetary contribution to their cause.
Pipelines are built because they are profitable. Pipelines are profitable because the modern world requires oil to run. If you are shouting “No DAPL!” while still expecting to live a life full of manufactured goods, using a private vehicle or public transportation to get around, eating industrially grown food from hundreds or thousands of miles away, access to electricity that flows from holes in the wall, and, yes, reading this on a computer or mobile phone, it may be worth questioning your commitment to the fight against this or any pipeline. Defeating Energy Transfer Partners and their ilk while continuing to live a modern, oil-soaked life is a pipe dream, but it’s also a golden opportunity to examine ways to change our culture and economy in a direction that more closely matches our morality. Anything less is like cuddling up to one person while actively courting another.