Alternative Futures — Who Chooses?

Carol A. Hand

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”
– Albert Einstein

“You will only learn what you already know.”
-John McKnight, Sufi Story

This week’s social policy class was difficult — not because of the enthusiastic hard-working students. It is always a difficult subject for me to teach because I need to stay on top of troubling current events and somehow find a place of hope for the future before I can encourage students to work for change. The evening before class, I was reading the news and realized for the first time the magnitude of danger and stupidity involved in the Enbridge Energy Pipeline.  A day later, I’m still uncertain about what I can do to help avert disaster, let alone contribute to positive alternatives.


Photo Credits: Google Enbridge Pipeline images

The pipeline that carries dirty tar sands oil laden with toxic chemicals around the Great Lakes already exists, threatening one-third of the fresh water on earth. At a public hearing last evening in Duluth, I listened to the proposal Enbridge has pending with the state to expand their pumping capacity – to pump more dirty oil to refineries into the state and across the headwaters of the Mississippi River, under and around the Great Lakes, through wetlands and wildrice beds, and through tribal lands in violation of treaty rights. I went to listen, observe, and learn, not to testify.

This morning (another snowy one), I am still reflecting as the winds from the southeast bring the toxic heavy fumes from the nearby factories. I am struggling to find hope for the future. I wish I could press the rewind button to change the past. What did I think was so important at the time the pipeline was being built that I didn’t pay attention to what Enbridge was doing? What small local issues felt so important that I missed attending to the larger threats? Yet those questions are only unproductive distractions. The question should be what can I do now? Listening to the people who spoke last night has left me with another question, is it already too late? I decided to write about my initial observations and reflections as a foundation for dialogue with others who may have insights.

Ever the storyteller, I need to begin with “one true sentence.” I don’t like to attend group meetings. Yesterday, I found myself looking for any excuse not to go to the evening hearing — driving at night is hard because I can’t see well enough, taking the bus at night would add hours to the commute across town because busses run so infrequently, going alone into a crowd of unknown but probably opinionated cliquish strangers is so uncomfortable, I have nothing to add to the conversations because I don’t know the history or science. I had to ask myself if I really cared enough to go anyway, and even though it was counter to the underlying concern to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel, I called a cab and showed up with more than 100 other people in the basement conference room of a downtown hotel.

Because it was a public hearing to consider Enbridge’s request to expand an already existing pipeline, Enbridge staff and lawyers, key state agencies charged with making the final decision, and an administrative judge to conduct the hearing, sat at tables in the front of the room. The final decision rests in the hands of state decision makers based on state laws that consider only if the proposed energy-related expansion is necessary to promote the public interest of state citizens, to protect life and safety. It was difficult to listen to the Enbridge staff and lawyers try to justify the need for expansion and glorify their commitment to the environment and well-being of communities. Of course, their assurances of corporate commitment to safety rang hollow to me in light of the profit motive and their attempts to justify a xenophobic national agenda to reduce dependence on imported oil from unfriendly Arab states by partnering with our friendly neighbor to the north.

enbridge 3

Photo Credit: Google Enbridge Pipeline images

Enbridge had planned well. Knowing that the order of speakers would be based on the when they arrived and signed in, the first five people to testify spoke in favor of the proposed expansion. All had carefully-crafted written speeches that emphasized the economic benefits through employment opportunities and increased tax revenues, and like the other eight supportive speakers, all had direct economic links to Enbridge. (I did stifle an incredulous chuckle as the Red Cross representative who spoke in support of Enbridge praised their corporate commitment and past efforts in disaster relief.)

The opposition testimony (two-thirds of the speakers) varied from emotional appeals to protect the water and earth to citing scientific studies about the urgency of addressing climate change by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and non-renewable energy sources. Others documented Enbridge’s history of oil spills and noted specific observations about the carelessness of their building and maintenance practices, or their failure to follow treaty provisions when crossing tribal lands.

I listened, observed, and took notes. Today, I am trying to sort out my overall insights. First, I need to reflect on the opening remarks of the administrative judge. He explained that the meeting room was set up with a table for speakers so everyone could speaker to each other as neighbors and community members. I’m not sure that happened. Half of the audience would applaud after those in support of Enbridge spoke (the woman seated next to me was among them), and the other half would applaud for those who presented their opposition (I was among that half). Although many spoke with passion, their words did not touch my heart because I didn’t sense their hearts in their words. Perhaps it was fear of speaking in public, but even fear is ego-motivated. Only one woman had the presence of mind to stand and face the audience as she testified, with her back to those at the front tables. Her words came the closest to touching others who expressed differing views.

As I reflect on the perspectives of those who spoke in support of expansion, I realize that no one offered viable alternatives to meet their legitimate economic concerns. They need Enbridge to support their families. Do we have viable alternative energy businesses to absorb businesses and workers reliant on old oil technologies? Do we have universities and technical colleges that can help them retool? Their support for the continuation and expansion of our reliance on old technology is understandable, but no one in the room who opposed expansion acknowledged this, so the room remained divided. It seemed as though the supporters of expansion were forced into a position of denying climate change to defend a perspective that was characterized as ignorant and self-interested. Opponents could leave and feel self-righteous and blame their failure to reach others’ hearts because the others were ignorant and self-interested, not really a part of our community.

This is the challenge of being between cultures – the need to understand different perspectives from an empathetic middle. It doesn’t answer the larger questions of what I can do, but I can begin to explore ways to address legitimate concerns and bridge cultural divides. And I can ask the blogging community, many of whom who are far more knowledgeable than I for help. I welcome dialogue, links and creative, inclusive ideas.

enbridge 5

Photo Credit: Goggle Enbridge Pipeline images (with edits)

In the meantime, I will live with the knowledge that a “disaster-waiting-to-happen” is not far from my front yard. I will continue to explore whether it is possible for the community to come together to imagine an alternative future that is inclusive or whether opposing sides will remain divided in the certainty that only their side knows the right answer.

enbridge 4

Photo Credit: Kalamazoo Pipeline (2010)

Links for Further Information:

Voices of Resistance to Canada’s Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline



17 thoughts on “Alternative Futures — Who Chooses?

  1. I read it with despair. It is so hard (if even possible) to undo damage once done. But I feel hopeful that you are educating a generation less likely to collaborate enthusiastically in their own destruction.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol, this post offers a very level-headed perspective on the development-versus-environment debate to which I have had similar experience (the coal industry is currently trying to build an unpopular export facility near my home). What’s critical, in my opinion, is that the total short-term and long-term costs associated with each option be made public. That way, everyone knows what’s at stake. Unfortunately, not everyone wants this information to come out. Transparency in the process should be our immediate concern.


    1. I agree, Robert. I am not sure what I can do to bring people together — perhaps I can ask my colleagues in the college where I teach as an adjunct to create a forum for dialogue to discover common ground. There are short-term needs (for people to keep the jobs they have) and long-term developmental needs to build jobs based on viable, sustainable options. Perhaps if the college where I work saw the potential economic benefits for creating an alternative energy concentration, they would take the lead — just thinking with my typing fingers here, but it might work.


  3. You write about such compelling Issues, which is always such a challenge.
    Yet, you do it with such ease and grace that we are all the better for it.


    1. Miigwetch (thank you) for your kind words, Gator Woman. I am still trying to figure out where to start with fracking and pipelines. I have begun drafting written testimony to oppose the Enbridge expansion and have been collecting links to resources that can support my arguments. Beyond that, I don’t know yet…


      1. I do not envy the road ahead of you~
        Are they part of the Keystone group?
        This is all such an ugly issue and right now it seems hopeless, money and power will rule in the end.
        Status quo.
        Nearly the entire country is against it, yet it continues unimpeded.
        Money and power.


  4. From the Global Research link you provided (good article), is it correct that the pipeline in your area is carrying condensate for thinning the thick bitumen FROM the east – to the west and the tar sands? For clarification what is flowing through the pipes in your area, and in what direction? So, Enbridge wants to build more capacity for the east-to-west flowing condensate/thinning fluids to increase production? Regarding the KXL pipeline Senator Edward Markey was visibly angry at a Senate committee discussion with pro and con witnesses, pointing out that all the product will go to refineries in Texas and be exported, shooting down the argument that KXL will help America become independent. Then, 100 police and citizens get shot dead so big oil can frack Ukraine. All the while, solar and other renewable technology has become price competitive. On energy, the late Hermann Scheer of Germany said the governments are not looking out for the people, the people will have to make things happen.


    1. Jerry, thanks for your questions and for sharing some additional resources.

      Let me answer your questions about the pipeline as best I can based on what I have learned thus far. The Enbridge “Alberta Clipper Pipeline” moves tar sands oil (bitumen) from northern Alberta to Midwest refineries. (Two are in Minnesota, one in Superior, and one in Indiana. There may be more I don’t know about.) The hearing I attended dealt with one of Enbridge’s three planned expansions across northern Minnesota. The one that affects Duluth involves a proposal to increase the line’s carrying capacity 40 percent to 800,000 barrels per day by increasing capacity at several pumping stations along the line. The storage and distribution center is located in Superior. Enbridge is also proposing an all new line from western North Dakota to Superior to handle oil from the Bakken oil fields.

      Looking at the larger maps on Enbridge’s website, the pipelines appear to go to Texas and the East coast, so it is likely that the refined product is going to be exported. Markey’s fears are legitimate.

      Scheer is right. Pursuing the development of more fracking sites and pipelines is insane from my perspective! Why aren’t we demanding the development of alternatives and retooling our universities and technical colleges to prepare the necessary engineers and technicians?


  5. Hi Carol…In my opinion, these pipelines are representative of the cancerous structure that undergird this entire corporate-capitalist system we find ourselves locked into. I applaud and admire those who have chosen to speak up and speak out on this issue. Greg Palast is an investigative journalist who has uncovered a lot of dirt on the Big Energy/Big Oil Companies.

    The deeper the game gets the more I believe that alliances and bridges must be built between the different movements that transcend class, borders, ideology, et al. This could be the most efficient way to reach the tipping points needed to turn the tide. By recognizing our shared humanity, we can find a way to tap into our collective power.


    1. It’s a daunting issue to tackle for me. In my spare time today, between grading student papers and helping edit a colleague’s performance report, I have been exploring online resources to help me write testimony opposing the Enbridge expansion. I plan to check out Greg Palast’s work. Thank you for the information.

      There seem to be so many fragmented groups that are not working together and pieces of information that need to be synthesized! And I so appreciate your emphasis on recognizing our shared humanity in all of this. I’m not sure how to operationalize that on a local level given the strong emotional divides I witnessed during the hearing, but I have been re-reading Rolling Thunder to remember there is hope and to reflect on how to work toward positive goals rather than fight “evil.”


  6. I am ignorant when it comes to this subject, but I would be researching it if it were in my area\ just like you:-) I can’t offer you any advice, but do understand your desire to help. I admire how you tackle some “tough” subjects on your blog + in your community. As I read your story( you are a great storyteller!) Oh how I could relate to this” I don’t like to attend group meetings. Yesterday, I found myself looking for any excuse not to go to the evening hearing…” The story of my life in this “season” of my life. I am finding I just don’t want to do some things anymore, but like you I force myself to attend….:-) good for you for caring + trying to understand, but don’t be so hard on yourself about not paying attention, in your youth I did the same…as we get older we slow down and pay attention….I say this often, oh how I wish I had my wisdom now in my youth:-)


    1. Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful words, Robbie. It was a wonderful way to begin my day.

      Your work gives me inspiration. I love the tribute you posted about Rosalind Creasy’s work! It helps me remember why it’s important to not only try to prevent future environmental threats, but to also create more gardens.


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