Capitol Protest: Let’s Discuss, Not Dance, Our Way to Broad Environmental Coalitions

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In light of today’s protest at the Capitol brought to you by Earth First! and Northern Rockies Rising Tide (and it’s surely critically important to distinguish those diverse groups) and some blowback from some snarky tweets I posted this afternoon, I thought I’d comment about just how ineffective—and even damaging—today’s protest was.

Initially, I should offer a surprising concession for a blogger—I really don’t know enough about the Keystone XL pipeline yet to take a strong position. I suspect, however, that I sympathize with the position of the protesters. I’ve long argued that Montana needs to be much more cognizant of the environmental impact of our pursuit of resource extraction. We’ve often given far too much latitude and trust to oil companies. both of which they have far too often abused.

That being said, today’s protest was nothing more than a destructive, self-righteous stunt that did far more damage to the effort to protect our environment than benefit.

Let me be clear: I deeply admire those willing to make the sacrifices necessary for protest. I’ve got no more significant heroes than Thoreau and King. But protest comes with a profound responsibility—a reasonable chance to effect positive change through your actions. It can’t be protest for the sake of protest or attention; it has to increase the odds of improving the situation.

Actions like today’s media-driven spectacle are so damaging to the cause of protecting the environment. The average Montanan waking up to her newspaper tomorrow or watching the TV news this evening will not only not be persuaded to resist further resource extraction in Montana, but will likely be so turned off by antics like shredding paper on the Capitol floor, dancing on the governor’s table, and screaming rather than listening, that they will move in the opposite direction.

Let me preempt an argument I anticipate. Today’s protest was not King in Birmingham, it was not unions in Wisconsin. I’m not condemning all protest, which is essential for direct democratic action.

Environmentalism—when stripped of the negative stereotypes so effectively leveraged in the past few decades by corporate interests and unfortunately on display today—is the majority position. Montanans want clean air, clean water, and clean land. The ongoing devastation of the Yellowstone River presents, in a horrible context, new opportunities to broaden coalitions to protect our environment with new allies.

There is a great deal of momentum to protect Montana’s most important heritage, but we won’t get there by reinforcing the idea that environmentalism is dominated by those who are unreasonable and irrational. Today’s protest/performance art only reinforces those ideas, and damagingly so.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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