Roberts on Revkin on Keystone

I like reading David Roberts’ stuff on Grist, especially when I disagree with him. Sadly, there’s not a thing I disagree with in this piece rebutting Andrew Revkin on opposition to Keystone. (Perhaps excepting his characterization of Matt Nisbet as a “professional wanker,” which I find overly generous given that I have always found Nisbet sorely lacking in professionalism.)

This weekend, close to 50,000 people gathered for the biggest rally ever against climate change, a threat Revkin acknowledges is enormous, difficult, and urgent. Revkin and his council of wonks took to Twitter to argue that the rally and the campaign behind it are misdirected, absolutist, confused, and bereft of long-term strategy. They had this familiar conversation as the rally was unfolding.

As a result, Revkin suffered the grievous injury of a frustrated tweet from Wen Stephenson, a journalist who has crossed over to activism. This gave the wounded Revkin the opportunity to write yet another lament on the slings and arrows that face the Reasonable Man. He faced down the scourge of single-minded “my way or the highway environmentalism,” y’all, but don’t worry, he’s got a thick skin. He lived to tell the tale.

This is all for the benefit of an elite audience, mind you, for whom getting yelled at by activists is the sine qua non of seriousness. The only thing that boosts VSP cred more is getting yelled at by activists on Both Sides.

Nice line, that last one. Useful in SO many contexts.

Roberts’ casual slam against the Frameinator comes in response to this tweet, in which Nisbet chides types for not hewing to his own special brand of 13-dimensional chess:

What struck me about the thread that tweet came in was the overwhelming criticism of Keystone pipeline opponents for not having an overarching strategy that extends past stopping the Keystone pipeline as they mobilize people to oppose the Keystone pipeline. That criticism isn’t quite true:, for instance, is full of local student groups putting pressure on their colleges to divest from fossil fuel companies, in much the same fashion as the anti-apartheid divestment movement that hit U.S. campuses in the 1980s.

But there’s also an uncanny similarity between the objections voiced in that thread to Keystone opponents’ lack of a formal program, and objections we heard to the Occupy Wall Street folks way back in 2011. We heard back then that because OWS didn’t have, say, a 13-point program to adjust the schedule of lunches at quarterly SEC hearings, that they weren’t Very Serious People.

Which, of course, essentially translates to “your genuine groundswell of concern and subsequent activism threatens to undermine our position as experts.”

I used to get lots of letters and emails when I worked at Earth Island Institute from helpful people who thought somebody ought to start a campaign to do something. That something varied: take on the issue of overpopulation, plant redwood trees along the shore of San Francisco Bay, teach inner city children about marmots, whatever. The problem was that very few of these missives were phrased in the first person: “I would like to do this work.” It was almost always “…you should do this thing I think is important.”

I roundfiled those letters, but they kept coming.

Which all raises two questions for me:

  1. What is it with people declaring that movements like the opposition to the Keystone pipeline ought to do things a certain specific way, while notably refraining from offering to do any of the hard work of implementation with the group they’re criticizing?
  2. How the hell does Matthew Nisbet still have a job?


  1. Ichthyic says

    another coincidence… association with EII.

    we worked with EII when I was science director for the shark foundation up in Santa Cruz.

    My guess on Nisbet is he has connections, family most likely, that got him well placed after he finished his doctorate.

    for those saying… “but he got his doctorate published in Science!”. That’s NOT that uncommon, and based on the quality of work Nisbet contributed vs. others I can think of that did the same (or published their thesis work in Nature – same thing), his placement and funding thereafter was suspicious.

    I mean, in his first year as a postdoc, AAAS was having him HEAD a friggen subcommittee on science communication.

    sorry, that doesn’t just “happen”. Someone MAKES it happen.

    I’ve never found Nisbet anything other than an annoying distraction from the real problems science faces in modern culture.

  2. Nathaniel R says

    I read that article the other day, and I couldn’t help but agree too. There’s this weird strain of thought that says “Yeah, climate change is a serious problem,” but then doesn’t act like it. If someone spends all their time criticizing activism like the opposition to Keystone and never does the hard work of providing an alternative, why should they be taken seriously? Keystone isn’t The Most Important Thing Ever with regards to climate, but it’s still a big deal, and I haven’t seen anyone really give a good reason why it shouldn’t be fought tooth and nail. I’m inclined to agree with David. At the absolute worst this fight is a waste of time and isn’t going to hurt anything.

    Anyway as a fan of both you and David on energy/climate issues I have a question.

    I like reading David Roberts’ stuff on Grist, especially when I disagree with him.

    What kind of things do you disagree with him about?

  3. says

    What kind of things do you disagree with him about?

    Not so much lately, but sometimes he and I come down on different sides of the habitat preservation versus renewable development issue. But he always argues well and I appreciate that these days.

  4. yubal says

    One thing that always struck me with this pipeline project, what if the pipeline is not built and they simply ship the oil via sea ports to the refineries in the south? (assuming those refineries can handle that kind of crude)

    Is this a decision between one pipeline or more oil tankers or is there another option I do not see? I think they will tap the oil sands anyways, the desperation for the crude is growing, especially after the sweet crude got increasingly rare.

  5. says

    I don’t understand what they want to happen instead. It’s like the people whining that OWS should’ve had a crime rate of zero, instead of merely lower than the cities they were in…

    What do they want to happen? There are people willing to stand up. Use that. Don’t whine about it, that gets us nowhere. Hippie punching isn’t worth anything in the end.

    And I love planting redwood trees. I’d love to figure out when the eat bay variant seeds, because no one sells that rare varietal. It’s much more heat-tolerant and nearly extinct. All the ones you see in the south bay are transplants from Santa Cruz and can’t stand the summer temps.

  6. Matt Penfold says

    How the hell does Matthew Nisbet still have a job?

    Some questions are destined to remain for ever unanswered I fear.

  7. says

    Ohh, an east-bay natives. Nice. Google is surprisingly unhelpful in finding good places.

    I mentioned the east-bay redwoods because they’re rare and should be used commercially instead of the Santa Cruz varieties, because they’re more heat tolerant.

    We collect lots of local seeds to see what’ll stick, taking guidance from what natives like our hillside. Because no one lived in our house for fifteen years, there are alot of natives that filled in the area that had been worked over prior. Of course, being in Santa Cruz means we have alot more overlap in what natives grew here prior

  8. thumper1990 says

    I’m not sure the comparison between the Occupy protest and this Keystone protest is fair. We had an Occupy sit-in over here, where people camped in St. Pauls for a month or so. At first I was like “Oh, good for them; let the Government know you’re not happy”, but then I listened to numerous interviews with protestors, and they didn’t seem to have any definite aims. Protest is all well and good, and personally I think a right to protest is an intrinsic part of Democracy, but you have to have clear aims. The point of a protest is to say “We want you to do X, Y and Z and until you do them we are going to sit here and make a nuisance of ourselves”. The Occupy movement in the UK was saying “We’re not happy with the bankers” and making vague noises about dismantling capitalism. You could say that dismantling capitalism was an aim, but it was far from a universal one intrinsic to the movement and even if it was, it’d hardly be a realistic one. So in the end they just ended up being a bunch of people in tents being angry about things and making a nuisance of themselves. You’re never going to change anything that way, you’re just going to annoy everyone for no good reason. Of course, Occupy in the US may have been different, but my support for the movement waned when not a single UK member seemed to able to articulate what they wanted to happen as a result of their protest.

    This protest, on the other hand, has one very clear aim: Don’t build the Keystone pipeline. It’s perfectly legitimate to criticise a protest for having no demands, but you hardly need a long term plan when your single issue is “Don’t build this pipeline”.

  9. says

    (also, it’s technically illegal to harvest the seeds from the redwoods, even though they’re broadcast seeders)

    And anyone from the redwoods knows that the redwoods pretty much grow like weeds once they’re in ^-^ The hard part is getting the foothold. I’ve roots from the cathedral next to my door 100′ away. They’re pretty intense on living once they get going.

  10. dgel says

    I tried to read the post by Revkin, saw the introduction was so much fluff and decided to skim to the argument. Which never came. Why is the ny times publishing what is essentially a collection of links detailing what Revkin said earlier, while complaining that he’s not universally loved?

    There’s no meat to that article at all, it’s just: Some people don’t like me, but it’s ok I’m a big boy.

  11. unbound says

    The problem was that very few of these missives were phrased in the first person: “I would like to do this work.” It was almost always “…you should do this thing I think is important.”

    I think this rather universal. Even at a local level (I was the treasurer for a local association and ran some fundraisers in support) I would get people saying “You should…” to which I would respond “That sounds great. Please come to the next meeting of the association, and we can discuss it in more detail.” Of course, they wouldn’t show up.

    Unless you’ve had the experience of trying to get volunteers to participate in an effort as well as the experience of trying to organize volunteers (i.e. they aren’t paid or hired), I think people just don’t understand how much effort goes into this unpaid (and usually thankless) work.

  12. atheist says

    I suppose that “they had no definite program” is a good sound byte for someone in a suit to utter on cable news as a way of soothing their clueless audience, so there should be no surprise that it gets used.

  13. crowepps says

    I find “you should do” a pretty universal theme, which encompasses pretty much everything; how other people ‘should’ dress, eat, work, date, have sex, raise their kids, get sick and even die. Human society sometimes seems to be entirely composed of ‘should’ for the other guy, and for oneself ‘nobody can tell ME what to do!’

  14. says

    Yeah, I tend to agree with the assessment that “stop the pipeline” is a goal itself. What is being missed is that the people protesting are probably also signing petitions, and doing other things, over a lot of other issues. I know, because there are at least 3 petition systems that I have posted to, which keep sending me new petitions, apposing the pipeline. Sadly, there is no “alternate” petition, to be signed, which says, “Shut the F up, until you know what you are talking about.”, for those issues they want me to sign on to, which I either know are BS, or suspect are, or where I know damn well we don’t have enough information. For example – Bee colony collapse. The current theory is that, since both a specific fungus, and a specific virus, are found ***at the same time*** in every colony that has collapsed, and they where able to test, that these two things are somehow interacting, producing colony collapse, where the presence of only one of them in a colony, doesn’t harm the bees. However, what I get isn’t, “Immediate research into how to prevent fungus in bee hives, or cure the virus!”, but and endless litany of petitions on, “Oh my god! Pesticides are evil, and one of them is killing bees! Sign now to ask the government to ban this pesticide!”

    OK, sure, there “may” be some contribution to the problem from it. But, ***everything*** at this point is preliminary, and while the various “protestors” are all running after every prelim study, in some mad race to save the bees, actual scientists are trying to figure out what the real problem is. But, this isn’t, of course, the only insanity. We see the same BS in the whole “anti-oxident” moment, where they jumped all over the preliminary data, didn’t wait for confirmation, and now there is likely to be morons claiming that these things will save your life, and stop you aging, for the next 20 years, even though the new evidence suggests that the only thing taking lots of vitamins will do is increase your risk of type II diabetes (oh, and provide a small decrease in the risk of cancer, of course). The fact that, for years, everyone (or everyone without a stake in the anti-ox game) has been saying, “You don’t need more vitamins unless you are not getting enough.”, isn’t relevant to people that don’t give a frak about real data. Sadly, one reason a lot of people don’t take anyone in these things seriously, including the pipeline protest, is precisely because, while they have plenty of valid facts in the case of the pipeline, including video evidence of gaping holes in pipes, which then got put into place, without repairing them, and buried already, half the people out there are probably, when done at the protest, going home to sign petitions to ban pesticides, to save the bees, while downing antioxident “smart water” and wearing a “power bracelet”.

    OK, maybe that isn’t quite fair, but.. sometimes I am seriously tired of my “allies” in a cause being almost as misinformed, systematically ignorant, or just crazy, as the ones whose actions I am protesting. Its bloody frustrating sometimes.

  15. brucegee1962 says

    I participated in the march on Washington last week, and I’ve been to local 350 meetings. There’s no question that climate change is the greatest challenge facing our generation.

    But stopping Keystone is going to do nothing on the #1 most important thing, which is preventing the tar sands oil from being burned. And unfortunately, they’re almost certain to be burned with or without the pipeline. The price of oil is going to keep on rising indefinitely, at least until the day that alternative is cheaper and better. If the only question is whether the oil is going to be piped to refineries in Texas or shipped by boat overseas to China — sorry, the pipeline sounds way better for the environment. I would support ending the pipeline if there was a realistic way of wrapping it up with a closure of the tar sands project, but frankly, I don’t see much of a hope of that happening.

    The best-case scenario would be if Obama were to use the pipeline as a bargaining chip in order to get something genuine done for the environment. From what I’ve read, the Carbon Tax is the way to go (unless he wants to resurrect Cap and Trade, which was also a good proposal). He should come up with a comprehensive energy policy, approving the pipeline to throw a bone to the energy companies, so that he can get them and their congressional lackies to go along on a substantial tax on carbon. Then plough all the tax money we raise back into research on solar and investment in wind.

    We’ll start reaching the 350 goal as soon as alternative energy starts being cheaper than burning things. Once we reach that point, the changeover could actually happen fairly quickly. That’s the goal we need to strive for. Other projects that don’t lead to that are distractions.

    Incidentally, the energy divestment movement is also fairly silly — not actually harmful, but it gives the movement a bad name as a non-serious actor. The anti-apartheid divestment campaign worked because the companies being targetted felt PR pressure, which they sought to mitigate by pressuring the South African government to end apartheid. The current campaign doesn’t have any similarly specific goals. What is it trying to do — make Exxon go out of business? Do these people understand how the stock market works? If every university in the world were to dump all its petroleum stock tomorrow, that wouldn’t have the slightest effect on the companies’ bottom line — a bunch of wall street sharpies would be only too happy to take advantage of the dip in price to snap up the stock as a bargain.

  16. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The long term strategy here is simple–oppose anything the “Drill, Baby, Drill” teabaggers are for.

  17. viajera says

    thumper1990 @11:

    Protest is all well and good, and personally I think a right to protest is an intrinsic part of Democracy, but you have to have clear aims.

    Do you? Honest question here, for anyone.

    I used to think so, and that was my one concern about Occupy (which I otherwise fully supported, and was involved in to the small degree I could in the last year of my PhD). But I just finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s “Paradise Built in Hell” and it was eye-opening. She talked a lot about the dramatic and rapid changes that ordinary people can make in society when they join together in communities. These types of communities are usually formed in response to disasters; she included Katrina, NYC post-9/11, and the 1906 San Fran and – especially – the Mexico City earthquakes as examples. But she made what I thought was a strong case for the communities forming among protestors as an analogous situation. The book was written pre-Occupy, but she talked a lot about the communities formed around various political and social justice organizations that popped up in New Orleans post-Katrina. Even when they’re not specifically advocating for X or Y clear goal, by their very existence and bottom-up leadership they’re modeling what society *could* be like.

    So Occupy may not have been able to change the world overnight, but they did show that there’s another way. That you can find fulfillment through community and activism rather than through accumulating ever-more stuff. Similarly, the Keystone protestors may not be able to stop climate change (as if, this is a “wicked problem” after all). But they model that environmentalists aren’t all doom-and-gloomers, or hippies in Birks and dreads. Both Occupy and the protestors also brought attention to issues that otherwise don’t tend to make the corporate news.

    That seems like progress to me, clear aims or no.

  18. unclefrogy says

    What is it with people
    “they are supper geniuses and can certainly tell the future”
    it’s so simple really

    uncle frogy

  19. says

    The best-case scenario would be if Obama were to use the pipeline as a bargaining chip in order to get something genuine done for the environment. From what I’ve read, the Carbon Tax is the way to go (unless he wants to resurrect Cap and Trade, which was also a good proposal).

    I have already said, someplace (I don’t remember if it was here at some point), that both of these, even if they worked in the long run, are bloody stupid in the short term.

    Carbon Tax – We won’t fix the problem, but if we do basically the same thing the medical industry does, and spread out the pain caused by adding a tax to fuel then.. somehow this will fix the problem. Lets just ignore what it does to poor people, or their food/clothing/other, etc. bills, because even if you let the poor off, you still cause the “businesses” to raise prices, to compensate. You might as well just add the tax to the poor directly, instead of hiding it. But, don’t spend money actually pursuing alternatives, by, say, taking back $5 billion of so, and putting it into research.

    Cap and Trade – If you poison your well less, we will let someone else poison their own a bit more, because having all of the wells poisoned makes so much more sense than.. oh, I don’t know.. reducing how much ***all*** of them are being poisoned. Huh? WTF sense does that make? Because that is, in fact, the logic here. That someone can trade off their own right to pump crap into the air, to someone else, so they both can, at least in the short term, keep doing it. It only really works if some people are willing to reduce how much poison they are dumping, voluntarily, so that someone else can keep poisoning, or increase the rate of doing so, their own.

    I personally think both methods are, in terms of the reality of what they do, insane, regardless of what the long term result is. But, frankly, right now, with the economy still in the condition it is, and the Tea Party still looking to take a government and Kamikaze it into near oblivion, when Obama has been cutting money, and cutting jobs out of it, while every other president during a recession has *increased* spending and jobs, the Carbon Tax idea has got to be the least sane of the two. We can’t afford yet one more thing that robs everyone of money, except of the rich, who can either mostly ignore that it happened, and/or wiggle out of paying it somehow. Because, like I said, there is no way, at all, we would charge the 1%, or what ever, such a tax, without it resulting in another, “Oh my god, milk is going to cost more than gasoline tomorrow!”, type situation. You know damn well that if businesses have to pay it, the people that couldn’t afford to pay it **will** be paying it anyway, via their food costs, and other services.

    I really can’t comprehend the logic of “solving” problems by just, well.. moving around the lines on the field, (to use a concept not dissimilar goal post moving), so that the people causing the problems can claim they where not actually standing on the wrong side of it, when the whistle blows, and either they didn’t “do” anything wrong (convenient…), or worse, someone else gets the penalty (even more convenient).

  20. Rick Pikul says

    @yubal: Alberta is not known for its sea ports. The efforts to build a pipeline through BC are facing even more opposition than Keystone, connecting and reversing pipelines heading east relies on massive government interference and is almost certain to end up being a huge and expensive mess when they have to rebuild the entire thing[1].

    @Kagehi: Cap and trade has been tried as an emissions reducing measure, it works. The core idea behind it is that the ecosystem doesn’t really care if the pollutant comes out of my stack or yours, so an overall limit is set that is divvied up between emitters. If someone can reduce faster than they have to, they get rewarded in the form of payments from the laggards.

    As for a carbon tax, you should know that many carbon tax plans either involve reducing other taxes, (such as the successful one BC has implemented), or are of the ‘fee and dividend’ type. In general they are revenue neutral for the population as a whole but they often end up favouring the poor , (e.g. things cost 1% more but the poor end up with 2% more in their pockets while the very rich see no significant change in their net income).

    [1] The pipelines are built to transport light crude, not the heavy corrosive gunk that comes out of the tar sands.

  21. thumper1990 says


    Yes. What is a point in a protest without aims? The point of a protest is to make such a nuisance of yourself that the government is forced to aquiesce to your demands. So, without demands, you are just making a nuisance of yourself. How does that help? It doesn’t improve the situation, it just makes other people’s lives difficult. A protest movement without clear aims cannot affect positive change.

    You seem to be arguing that the creation of the communities themselves is a positive in and of itself, but I fail to see why. Mere existence in and of itself is not necessarily a positive. A shared dislike of something can certainly lead to a sense of community, but what positive change can be affected by a group of people coming together to say “We dislike X”? Nor do I agree that “Even when they’re not specifically advocating for X or Y clear goal, by their very existence and bottom-up leadership they’re modeling what society *could* be like.” You seem to be suggesting that society would be better if we all lived in tents and had no clear leadership.

    It’s not that Occupy couldn’t change the world overnight, it’s that Occupy haven’t changed anything, anywhere, full stop. And the reason they haven’t is because no one knew what it was they wanted changing.